On invisibility

Somewhere, deep inside the convolutions of my consciousness, I am convinced that I am invisible. It must be a vestige of the childish belief that if your eyes are covered, no-one can see you. Even now, if an acquaintance recognises me in a public space, I feel a slight shock – contrary to my default assumption, I can be seen.

For me, invisibility has always been a desirable state. I suspect this desire is one of the reasons I was attracted to writing from an early age: it was a way I could assert myself without being seen. Or, perhaps, my early desire to write reinforced my own conviction of invisibility. It seemed miraculous that words I thought and wrote down could communicate even in my absence. It still does.

As I grew up, this sense of invisibility conflated itself with the act of seeing. If I am seeing something, the logic runs, I can’t be seen – the act of perception itself renders me invisible. Writing seems the perfect materialisation of this notion. And so, many years ago, I read with deep interest Maurice Blanchot’s influential book The Space of Literature, in which he explores how the author displaces himself in order to write. The writer, he says, gives up saying ‘I’.

Kafka remarks, with surprise, with enchantment, that he has entered into literature as soon as he can substitute ‘He’ for ‘I’. This is true, but the transformation is much more profound. The writer … may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.

I first read this book around thirty years ago – difficult though I find it to believe now – I simply didn’t notice I was trespassing on an exclusively male universe. The word ‘she’ appears in the text only six times, mostly in reference to woman as death – Eurydice, Diotima, an unnamed poisoner – or, once, in a reference to a fictional woman who ‘does not read’.

Like Orpheus, says Blanchot, the writer ‘does not want Eurydice in her daytime truth and her everyday appeal, but wants her in her nocturnal obscurity, in her distance, with her closed body and sealed face – wants to see her not when she is visible, but when she is invisible’.

The writerly desire to be invisible, to attain the ambiguous unselving that is for Blanchot the beginning of writing as literature, is explicitly refused to women. Eurydice must be visible at all times to the gaze of Orpheus, even when she is invisible: he wants her not as herself, not in her living daytime truth, ‘but to have living in her the plenitude of her death’.

What happens to Eurydice is an erasure so complete that it negates even her inexistence. Even death is no escape. It shows how the act of erasure is quite different from the privilege of invisibility, which is the ability to see and not be seen. Even in the invisibility of her death, Eurydice is captured in the gaze of Orpheus, a prisoner of the writer’s desire.

A woman, like all the other others – the non-white, the non-abled, the non-heterosexual, the non-cis – can never be invisible. We are always visible, as bodies that must be possessed or desired or mocked or displayed, in death or in life. And because we can’t be invisible, we can’t attain the universality of truth that is available to literary men.

To relinquish the ‘I’, one must have an ‘I’ to begin with. To be female is not to have an ‘I’: it is to be a ‘she’, the perpetually seen, the occasion for – not the author of – literature. The primary literary assertion of the feminine ‘I’ is the original sin, these days most often dismissed – whether it fits or not – as ‘identity politics’.

Worse, our femininely visible invisibility is a necessity for the writer – that is, for the writer constructed as He. For Orpheus, ‘Eurydice is the furthest that art can reach … she is the profoundly obscure point towards which art and desire, death and night, can tend.’ Our perceptible absence is the very source of literary desire.

And yet, for all our inescapable visibility, women are erased, our ‘daytime truths’ banished from the authorship of self or unself, from the very realm of literature itself. And here is the double bind. To assert our visibility, as subjecthood, as ‘I’, is to refuse the necessary dissolution of the self that permits literature. It is, as we see in many different instances, to sully the lofty realms of art with an ‘agenda’.

To assert feminine invisibility is even worse. As with Elena Ferrante, who boldly demanded invisibility for herself, it is to be deceptive and dishonest, worthy of investigative journalism that is more usually directed towards uncovering organised crime.

Perhaps, in this view of literature, the assertion of womanly invisibility really is a crime. What would happen to the intricate paradox that is male literary privilege if subjecthood and its privileged refusal is available to anyone? To assert the illegal ‘I’ and then to relinquish it, to claim for oneself privileged invisibility instead of erasure, brings the whole space of literature down in a crash of pronouns. Frankly, this is not such a bad idea. So next time you see me, remember that I really am invisible.


Image: ‘High heels’ / flickr



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Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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