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The Journal of


Sensual Angels and Exteriority: Helen Garner's Cosmo

Claire Colebrook
The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1994; 29; 55
DOI: 10.1177/002198949402900106
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Sensual Angels and Exteriority:

Helen Garners Cosmo Cosmolino
Claire Colebrook
University, Perth, Australia


One of the central problems which vexes both feminist theory and postcolonial criticism today is the problem of alterity, or the &dquo;other&dquo;. The issue has a
philosophical heritage which can be traced back at least as far as Hegel, but
the question of the &dquo;other&dquo; as it is articulated in contemporary social theory
and feminist thought has a specifically political inflection. For postcolonial
theory the problem of alterity has been inextricably intertwined with cultural
imperialism. According to Edward Said the self-identity of the West has
been dependent on the construction, exclusion and appropriation of the
Orient as &dquo;other&dquo;, and the discourse of Orientalism is &dquo;premised upon exteriority&dquo;.- More generally, for Mary Douglas, &dquo;It is only by exaggerating the
difference between within and without, above and below, male and female,
with and against, that a semblance of order is created
In the feminist critique of Western thought, where woman has been conceived as &dquo;other&dquo;, the task has been set to redefine the feminine in terms of
its own morphology. That is, female identity would no longer be defined
negatively as that which is excluded from what it means to be masculine.
Rather, feminists have begun reinscribing the feminine in terms of a new
feminine autonomy. But the problem for both postcolonial and feminist criticism is how the &dquo;other&dquo; can be removed from a realm of exclusion, repression or marginalisation without, in this act of reinclusion, taking on all the
features of the &dquo;same&dquo;. In other words, how is it possible to have an authentic, nondominating and truly other relation to the other?
This problem was rehearsed as early as 1967 in Jacques Derridas essay
on Foucault.~ Foucaults attempt to write a history of madness or a history of
a silence failed to take into account that any act of history (involving writing,
meaning and hence reason) would already belie the absolute alterity of that
which it seeks to represent. Foucaults history would, then, merely repeat
Reasons traditional and classical role of speaking for madness. According to
Edward Said this problem (of gaining identity for the other without losing the
character of the other) can be answered by a postmodern aesthetic. Adopting
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unauthorized distribution.

the philosophy of the French philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari,
Said claims that the &dquo;steady critique of nationalism&dquo; is best undertaken within
a &dquo;nomadology&dquo; which transgresses boundaries, borders and identities:
intellectual mission, bom in the resistance and opposition
of imperialim, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused,
decentred, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the
migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile,
the political figure between domains, between form, between home, and
between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed counter


as an

to the confinements and ravages




But there are problems in adopting such an approach for feminist

philosophies of alterity. Postmodern philosophers have frequently attempted
to see the problems of female identity as easily resolvable within a postmodern abandonment of fixed identity in generate But there is a serious danger
that the postmodern celebration of difference and the proliferation of multiple identities halt the project of defining an autonomously feminine subjectivity. Should the &dquo;woman question&dquo; be subsumed beneath the postmodern
rejection of individual identity or is such a move premature, robbing feminism of its present force? It has been the work of Luce Irigaray which has
demonstrated, most forcefully, the need to define a specifically feminine
1. genre&dquo;. What Irigarays critique of Western philosophy reveals is, not
some already fixed and determined female essence which has been excluded
from definitions of subjectivity, but that femininity has only ever been
defined as the other of the same; that is, other to masculinity and not as a
being in its own right. The task for feminism, then, is to appraise the true
alterity of feminine being - to experience the idea of woman as truly and
authentically different and not in opposition to the masculine norms of rationality, objectivity, universality and unity.
For postcolonial writers, and in particular women postcolonial writers,
the problem of the other has a double force. How is one to describe the experience of being other, in terms of race and gender, without being defined
within the discourse and imaginary of the same? Sharing the same language,
the writer must also gesture to that which the common language belies - the
ineffable and radically exterior character of otherness.
The problem of otherness, or the intrusion of exteriority into a closed
world, is one of the central themes in Thomas Pynchons The Crying of Lot
49. In this classic postmodern text Oedipaa Maass search for meaning is
located in a closed network of signifiers which can only ever generate further
signifiers. She is unable to gain access to any experience outside the web of
signification. Consequently, the novel is permeated with references to narcissism, solipsism and self-enclosedness which characterise the postmodern
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meaning. The final moment of The Crying of Lot 49

Oedipaa desperately waiting for revelation and meaning. Significantly
this culmination of all her expectations of visitation is figured in the image
of the angel:
loss of referentiality



She heard a lock snap shut; the sound echoed a moment. Passerine spread his
arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture ; perhaps to a descending angel. The auctioneer cleared his throat.
Oedipaa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49.&dquo;

Pynchons use of the angel in The Crying of Lot 49 is tied to the novels
theme of revelation, alternative worlds and the intrusion of meaning: the
angel is a visitation that will restore meaning to a world of difference. If
Pynchons postmodern, cold-war America is characterised by a proliferation
of signs which lead nowhere in a land which has lost its past, its directlon
and its ability to understand itself, then the angel represents a point of exteriority. The &dquo;otherness&dquo; of the angel means that it, unlike all else, is not caught
up in the world of signs and entropy. The angel will guarantee some redemption from Oedipaas frustrated search for truth. But the angel of meaning and
revelation in The Crying of Lot 49 never actually appears. In a story which
continually frustrates the unearthing of clues, the novels ending suggests
just one more instance of the deferral of meaning. The &dquo;Endless, convoluted
incest&dquo; which characterises Pynchons America is a legacy of the loss of
the American dream of &dquo;newness&dquo; and renewal. There can be no visitation
for a culture which can only repeat old signs, rehearse the search for lost
objects but never arrive at a point outside the collection of fragments which

meaningful past.

to a once

In her most recent work, Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner also uses the
image of the angel to represent visitation. But Gamers use of the angel in
many ways challenges the postmodern experience of the &dquo;endless, convoluted incest&dquo; of signs. Not only do Gamers angels actually appear in her
work, they are also representatives of exteriority in the form of sensuality
rather than meaning. While Pynchons Oedipaa waits for the angel that will
bring her the truth or semantic certainty, Garners angel is radically exterior.
In Cosmo Cosmolino the angel signifies a true otherness that would challenge and disrupt stable self-identity. Above all, the angel in Cosmo
Cosmolino is ethical - ethical in Emmanuel Levinass use of the term. For
Levinas, ethics is first philosophy because it is our direct and sensual experience of the other in a non-universal context which commands us to consider
that which lies beyond ourselves, or that which is exterior.&dquo; The sense of the
ethical is aroused by the direct and unmediated experience of the other:
But the ego
not as


be called into question by the other in

obstacle which it can always measure, nor






way the death which it

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give itself. The ego can be brought to accusation, despite its innoby violence to be sure, but also, despite the separation in which the
exclusiveness and insularity of the psychic leave it, by the other. The other, as
other, nonetheless &dquo;obsesses&dquo; it, and, nearby or far-off, imputes to it a responsibility, unexceptionable as a traumatism, a responsibility for which it had not



taken any decision but which, closed up in itself, it cannot





Levinas, Luce Irigaray has seen the importance of the

of true difference for ethical experience:

always still-preliminary gesture, which precedes any union and

first in all nuptials, which weds without consuming, which perfects
while abiding by the ouiline of the other, this gesture may be called: the touch
of the caress.
Prior to and following any positioning of the subject, this touch binds and
unbinds two others in Hesh that is still, and alway untouched by mastery.&dquo;



and the concomitant negotiation between self and

an important theme in Garners work; but in Cosmo
C osmolino Garner unites the experience of sensuality with the visitation of
an angel. Her use of the angel can be illuminated by considering the context
of her epigram from Rilke: &dquo;Every angel is terrible&dquo; (&dquo;Ein jeder Engel is
schrecklich&dquo;). In the Duino Elegies Rilkes angels represent an exteriority not of a transcendent truth - but of the simple and particular being which
exceeds our individuality. For Rilke, like Garner, the angel is felt most &dquo;terribly&dquo; in solitude, when one is deprived of the confirmation of love:


other, has always been

Whom would it

not remain for - that longed-after,

mildly disillusioning presence, which the solitary heart
so painfully meets. Is it any less difficult for lovers?
But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.

All the characters in the three stories which

comprise Cosmo Cosmolino

solitaries who attempt to gain access to some form of alterity. In the first
story, &dquo;The Recording Angel&dquo;, Patrick defines the main character by fixing
and recording her history. In various forms of signs and writing (&dquo;a cast iron
curriculum vitae&dquo;, maps, poems, postcards) Patrick encloses and isolates her
present self by recording her past:

for Patrick recited my life like a poem he had leamt by heart; and over the
year of our friendship I had come to endure his version without open rebellion,
since if in conversation I disputed even the most trivial detail of his discourse a date, a setting, a dream - he exhibited signs of an existential alarm that verged
on panic; his eyes widened, his nostrils went stiff, he breathed in sharply and
shoved his palms against the table edge; and it was not only lifes patterns, its
event and landmarks and the proper ordering and interpretation of them that he
needed to hold a monopoly on, but also its aesthetic, the aesthetic of me.S

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It is her burning of the signs of the past (Patricks postcards) which presages
the final visitation of the angel. If to be formulated by an other is to have an
enclosed identity, then the erasure of that identity will be the condition for
renewal. By burning the postcards, the unnamed character hopes to open her
world away from the past into an indeterminate presence:
Was there a way to wipe it out? What if it happened today?
What if the
surgeon should lose his way, and broach the box of bone where Patricks official grids were stored? What if, with his savage light-tip, he should isolate,
clip out and finally excise my file from the bee-chambers of Patricks
memory? Then, at last, could I spring away free into newness of life? (17)

form of

is answered

the eventual visitation which comes in the

child. Significantly, the escape form Patricks grids of the past is
achieved, not by an isolated and autonomous sense of self, but through a
direct and naked presentation to an other. This other, this angel, seems familiar because he is also reminiscent of her past:



for I felt that I knew him, that in some book or gallery I had seen his picture,
picture of somebody like him. Out of respect I placed my feet more lightly
on the marble floor; and just as I drew level with him he straightened his spine,
raised his head, and extended his gun arm towards me in a slow, vertical arc. I
saw then what he was: I recognised him. I stood still in front of him. I presented
myself: for he was no longer playing. He was here on business, acting on
orders. He was a small, serious, stone-eyed angel of mercy. (22)

or a



so the encounter with the other is also a taking account of oneself (&dquo;He
here on business ... &dquo;).
In &dquo;A Vigil&dquo;, the second story, we are given another female character,
Kim, who has even less of a sense of personal agency. In the first sentence
we learn that she is waiting for her father &dquo;to straighten her life out for her&dquo;
(25). The sexual encounter that takes place between Kim and her lover,
Raymond, reveals the extent to which she has become an object for a defining subject. The intercourse is not between a self and an other but is narcissistic and objectifying:


The nightdress was twisted up round her waist and her skin was loose, like
old sacking. She had about as much life in her as a half-deflated dummy, but
without complaint she opened her legs, and he kept his face turned away, to
avoid her breath. She grunted, that was all, and when he rolled away she
made a limp effort to attach herself to his back: but she was a dead weight
that could not hang on. (27)

Raymond is, therefore, caught in a world of definitions of Kim rather than an

authentic experience of her:
He imagined, propped there in his twisted pose while his insides congealed

into blankness, how he would describe her in the cafe if any of them

stopped talking long enough. (28)

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And because his relation with her is so narcissistic, because he has
experience of others, his own being is derivative:



He lived untouched inside a grey casing through which he watched, dully,

how other people behaved, and sometimes tried to mimic them ... His whole
life was faking. He thought that was what people did. (29)>

Kims death, therefore, is crucial. If, according to Levinas, it is the experience of the other which elicits responsibility and which awakens us to a
sense of our individual ethical burden, then it is Kims death, the sense of her
otherness and finitude, which prompts Raymond to emerge from his &dquo;grey
casing&dquo; to a heightened sense of self and purpose:
realised that
done, that nobody here


nobody here
was going to

knew how this thing was meant to be

stand up and say the words that would

them. (35)

When Raymond, after the funeral, is taken by the angels of the underworld
to witness Kims cremation, the experience of the disintegration of Kims

formerly-objectified body

acts as a


in his swoon of shock, the panel collapsed; it

gave way to the swarming orange argument, and where it had been he saw a
dark-cored nimbus of flame, seething, closer to him than an arum B reach. Its
twin centre, their shod soles towards them, were her feet. In the passion of
their tranfiguration they loosened. They opened. They fell apart. (44)

Raymond stared, greedy

After this summoning by the underworld, Raymond experiences the newness

of being and the multiplicity of life. He has been awakened from his
&dquo;faking&dquo; to exteriority by the apocalyptic &dquo;final disintegration&dquo;: ~.; . - , ,<

An unbearable diamond of evening sky hovered over his head, scalloped and
sprigged at its edges by dark foliage. Air gushed through it, smelling of cut
grass; and out of the fresh leaf-masses, there poured down on him a light,
nervous, persistent whirring, a multitudinous soft tapping and chewing, a vast

and infinitesimal

cacophony of insects living, living, living. (47)

What these two stories reveal is the alienation of a self when defined as a
fixed object by others. Both male characters, Raymond and Patrick, fix their
female characters in terms of their own definitions. But such fixity is broken,
not by a taking over of definitions by the female characters, but by a confrontation with alterity - a visitation of exteriority into a world of pre-determined signs. In this sense, Garners angels act as a challenge to the
postmodem reduction of experience to a network of signification. The angels
represent an experiential possibility which disrupts a closed and self-contained world of meaning.
In the third and longest story of the collection, &dquo;Cosmo Cosmolino&dquo;,
Raymond, suffering from the loss of Kim and known now as Ray, moves
into a house with Janet and Maxine. Janet, a divorcee, has decided like Ray
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flee her past: &dquo;Forgetting was her greatest skill&dquo; (52). But she is also
pained that her physical, practical and stoical isolation is producing a continual loss: &dquo;Wherever she looked she saw the fleetingness of things. Mend as
she might, clothes wore out. Things broke&dquo; (52). Janet, in many ways, represents the individualist legacy of the earlier world of Gamers Monkey Grip.
Her personal isolation (&dquo;She was beholden to nobody, and that was her
proudest boast&dquo;) is a consequence of the years of communal living. In that
shared world, truly personal encounters were deemed impossible in a context
which refused spirituality. Confident and righteous, there was no sense of a
debt to the past or to others:

in those day, said Janet. For all our nghteous egalwild and cruel. We had no patience: our hearts were
stony: our house meetings were courts of no appeal: people who displeased
us we purged and sent packing. We hated our families and tried to hurt them:
despised our mothers for their sacrifice.
Some of us, said Janet, fell into the gap betwen theory and practice.
though we called it overdose, or suicide, or falling asleep at the wheel. We had
not learnt the word with which to speak of death. Poor Chips, whispered the
last of the household children, a little girl whose head bristled with a hundred
tightly yanked plaitlets, holding Janets hand in a bleak crematorium chapel:
&dquo;he died by loneliness.&dquo; They sat in a pew, dry-eyed and desolate, listening to
the ideological rambling of a contemporary with scum on his lips who knew
of no comfort to offer, no blessing to call down, nothing useful or true to say.
The god had long ago been mocked and forgotten. Nobody prayed. (55-6)

were we



thinking of,

we were

The lament that &dquo;Nobody prayed&dquo; is less a yearning for religion than it is a
criticism of the self-enclosedness of a world that has lost its ability to look
outside itself to others.
Maxine, the third solitary of the story, has like Ray and Janet forgotten
how to deal with others. But it is she who most recognises the need for the
visitation of &dquo;a messenger, a courier of import&dquo;. Ray remains enclosed in his
Bible: &dquo;The little book was there. It comforted him, and he did not need to
open it to find the phrase for this alarming room&dquo; (66). Nevertheless, beneath
the phrases he uses to guard himself he is yearning for presence: &dquo;If only she
knew how desperate he was. Not for the food ... but for her gesture: the offering, the direct gaze, the smile&dquo; (66). Janet, also, is desperately trying to open
her house to others. But Maxine immediately and willingly recognises Ray as
an angel; his visitation is defined neither in terms of religion nor love. His significance is, rather, sensual producing a re-awakening of her body: &dquo;She was
aware of a smooth internal softening, a preparation by her body of all its
organs, glands and passageways&dquo; (70). Janet, also, has been enclosed within
her body and is awakened by sensual contact with Ray: &dquo;Janet had forgotten
how it felt to let go: the seizure of the skin across the nose, the dissolve of the
abdomen, the warm collapse of an inner barricade&dquo; (119).
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Janets lament over her past accuses the &dquo;righteous egalitarianism&dquo; of
having &dquo;hated our mothers&dquo;. It is that isolated individualism of the past
which has led to Rays, Maxines and Janets impoverished present. The repopulation of Janets house and the re-opening of closed rooms signify an
attempt to come to terms with that past in order to re-direct the present. The
house has haunted Janet as an image of her past:
And sometimes, now, in the empty house, she heard her own footsteps hurry
past on the other side of a wall, her own voice, more girlish, laughing in a
closed room. Unwelcome memories of happiness rustled behind her or
pounced from doorways. (53)

And so, Janets cooking of a meal for Ray and Maxine is an attempt to
re-awaken the communality which she has lost. As she takes out a cooking
utensil it &dquo;radiated meaning, like an object from a forgotten dream&dquo; (120).
As she serves the dinner she realises that &dquo;What she was offering was herself (126). But Janets attempt fails; for there can be no re-writing of the
past. It is Maxine and her desire for a child which eventually succeeds in
gaining another future. Her yearning for a child is the desire for another
world. &dquo;Cosmo, cosmolino&dquo; is &dquo;world, little world&dquo; ( 144). It is a thoroughly
new mother-child relationship which is set against Janets lamented past
characterised by a hatred for maternal sacrifices. Ray is the agent for
Maxines child because, as a messenger, he offers the ethical challenge of
the other:
The gaze with which he fixed her was as egoless,
as a babys, and the responsibility it heaped on her






total. (73)>

The interaction of the three characters reveals a challenge to their enclosure in their own pasts. The re-opening of the house constitutes a re-emergence and recommencement of time. If the visitations of the previous stories
have awakened a sense of life and being, the catalyst for &dquo;newness&dquo; in
&dquo;Cosmo Cosmolino&dquo; lies in the meeting of the characters themselves. The
revelation is not transcendent; it is the desire for the personal experience of
others which prompts Janet to open her house. In opening the rooms time
begins again, open, innocent and pleading. As she opens a room, Maxine is
confronted by a clock:
faithful little moon, was turned up to her, its hands were spread to
and its inner mechanism emitted without ceasing the rapid
ribbon of blows called the passing of time. (81 )>
Its face,

plead innocence,

While Maxine sees her visitation and redemption in the form of Ray as
angel, Ray yearns constantly for the return of Kim. But however they misrecognise each other, it is their sexual and bodily encounter which proves
redemptive. This, significantly, takes place at night, in the dark and in a state
of lowered awareness; Ray is dreaming and Maxine is sleep-walking. It is
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their bodies, rather than minds which approach each other (147). Similarly,
the end of the story, Maxines redemption is physical. She is floated into
the air and carried away. Although her belief in the metaphorical &dquo;golden
aeroplane&dquo; has failed to secure her release, it is her sensual and bodily
encounter with Ray which begins her ascension.
After their sexual intercourse the &dquo;failure bird&dquo;, which has been singing
its disconnected melody throughout the story, finally creates a &dquo;humble riff
151 ) and later practises a tune ( 152). Janet, on the other hand, who has been
visited throughout the story by the &dquo;dark column&dquo; (an ominous sense of otherness) is unable to turn from herself and face external revelation:

stooped, the dark column swelled behind her and slightly to the left,
touching her, and not visible unless she should frankly turn and face it.
This she dared not do; but she straightened her back and bowed her head, in




respect, while the column insisted behind her left shoulder, calm

as a


tenacious, incorporeal, and endlessly patient. (152)

But she eventually sees the &dquo;dark column&dquo; in one of Maxines paintings
which she offers to buy. By doing so she both acknowledges her experience
of the event and Maxines role in presenting it to her ( 156). In some way all
three characters, overnight and at a point of anonymity, have come together;
and so there is an enactment of communion the following morning:

after all, they offered each other bread, and milk, and
cordial and uneasy with one another as strangers on
the morning after a testing journey who, aware that they may have betrayed
more of themselves in the night than they had meant to, scarcely know in
daylight where to put themselves, for fear of their own openness, and of what
might next be required of them. (158)




coffee; and they

were as

What they have confirmed is not a rewriting of the past, nor a new identity in
the present, but their opening to the future and each other. Later, it is an
encounter between Janets and Maxines body which eventually re-awakens
Janets past &dquo;as if the seventies were only yesterday, or as if Maxines body
by its very contours had called them back to life&dquo; ( 171 ). And it is Maxines
art which then moves Janet away from that past to the brink of a confrontation of her self. Looking at the picture of the &dquo;dark column&dquo;, she sees herself,
&dquo;her whole length, foreshortened, naked, with one arm stretched upwards in a
mysterious gesture - drowning? Volunteering?&dquo; (191). But Janet eventually
(and unlike Maxine) turns from the visitation and, in doing so, she turns away
from otherness and responsibility and back into her own self:
but if he looked, if he acknowledged it and turned to face it, her defences
would be breached: without a word being spoken her swaddling of scepticism
would burst open, and some appalling and total submission would be
demanded of her, a surrender of self with no back-tracking. In terror, she
closed her eyes. ( 191-92 )>

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&dquo;Every angel is terrible&dquo; - terrible because it remains radically exterior to

descriptions of the world, to our signs, our language and our writing
of our selves into our own past. In its otherness, the angel represents a future
not-yet-lived and a personal responsibility to that which exceeds the self.
Gamers final image of visitation - the little world in the form of a child uses the figure of the maternal to depict a transcendence of the selfs own
limits. It is a move from the &dquo;endless, convoluted incest&dquo; of postmodemity to
our own

&dquo;wild interior music&dquo; (216) of redefinition.



For the history of the problem of alterity in French philosophy and the legacy
of Hegel, see Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Edward Said, Orientalism, London: Routledge, 1978, p. 15
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and
Taboo, London: Routledge, 1966, p. 4.
Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans, Alan Bass, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, London: Chatto and Windus, 1993,

p. 403.

See, for example, Jean-Francois Lyotard, "Some of the Things at Stake in

Womens Struggles," Wedge, 6 (1984), pp. 24-9.
For the expression of such reservations see Rosi Braidotti, Patterns of
Dissonance: A Study of Women in Contemporary Philosophy, trans. Elizabeth

Guild, Cambridge: Polity, 1991.



Luce Irigaray, Divine Women. trans. Stephen Muecke, Sydney: Local

Consumption Occasional Papers 8, 1986.
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 1965, London: Picador, 1979, p. 127.

ibid., p. 8.
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans.
Alphonso Lingis, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1969.
Emmanuel Levinas, "Humanism and An-archy," Collected Philosophical
Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987, p. 133.
Luce Irigaray, "The Fecundity of the Caress: A Reading of Levinas, Totality
and Infinity, section IV, B, The Phenomenology of Eros," in Face to Face
with Levinas, ed. Richard A. Cohen, New York: State University of New
York Press, 1986 p. 232.
Rainer Maria Rilke, "The First Elegy", The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria
Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell, London: Picador, 1987, p. 151.
Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992, p. 4. All
further references will be to this edition and will be incorporated into the text.

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