Leora Skolkin-Smith: On Helene Cixous’ So Close

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Leora Skolkin“I go, we go,” Helene Cixous wrote when asked to describe her work. “On the way we keep a log-book, the book of the abyss and the shores. Everyone does. My books are thus like life and history, heterogenous chapters in a single vast book whose ending I will never know. The differences in the genres of the books I write reproduces the eventful aspects of a life in our century. A woman’s life into the bargain. To briefly indicate my directions: in my fictional texts I work in a poetic form and in philosophical contents on the mysteries of subjectivity.”

Helene Cixous has authored over forty books and over a hundred articles including works of fiction, drama, philosophy, feminism, and literary theory. Widely known, too, for her academic career, she founded the experimental Université de Paris VIII at Vincennes. In 1974, while still at Université de Paris VIII, she started the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines, the first of its kind in Europe to focus primarily on the theme of the feminine gender in relation to world literature and language.

For all her adventurous and original academic activism, Cixous is an intensely personal writer, and her “log-book” includes a close scrutiny of her emotional genesis from a childhood filled with loss, national dislocation, and a profound struggle for personal identity.

Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria in 1937 of a Spanish-French-Jewish father and a German-Jewish mother. She grew up speaking German and French, while she also heard Spanish and Arabic. Her father died when she was only eleven years old. Her mother was forced to make ends meet, becoming a midwife in her own clinic in Algiers until the family was forced to leave the country and resettle in France. Much of Cixous’ work is a result of her traumatic dislocation from her national birthplace when her mother was exiled from her clinic and nursing practice by the fierce political forces then pulling apart the country. Later in France, still a young person, Cixous experienced a French nationalistic climate that excluded her from belonging. The traces of her native Algeria were vanishing, both literally and within her memory and self.

Through Cixous’ expansive, prodigious body of work, one encounters a rare hybrid: the poetess, a philosophical memoirist, a theorist, and a novelist. Thinking and theory are as much a part of her texts as imagination and poetic intensity. And the integration of so many disciplines elevates her work, which stands in unique contrast to the work of our current market-driven book culture. She is an advocate for the freeing of writing, as well as the freeing of the self through writing. “To me writing is the fastest and most efficient vehicle for thought,” Cixous wrote in Rootprints, “it may be winged, galloping, four-wheeled, or jet-propelled, etc. according to the urgency. All I want to do is to illustrate, depict fragments, events of human life and death, each unique and yet at the same time exchange able. Not the law, the exception. My kingdom is the instant, and of course I am not its queen, only its citizen. I always work on the present passing.”

Cixous’s mother took on jobs to support the family as a midwife in France, again introducing the younger Helen to the world of women giving birth. The rhythms and expressions of a new mother’s womb and flesh became the paradigm from which Cixous would build feminist theories that expressed her feelings of otherness. Feminism, Cixous asserts, is “about women” and the “presence of women in literature” offering alternative forms of being in relation to an Other, and the world. Language, written as a woman’s stream of articulations generating in her body and emanating through her interior self, was nothing short of revolution, capable of initiating reform and changes into the political and cultural climate of oppression. Conflict and imagery exist in Cixous’s work as physical entities—body-states, predominately “feminine” in their rhythms and undulations. Through writing, Cixous believes we can look inward, break through the enslavement of nationalism and free a spirit at once personal and receptive, offering an alternate and subjective experience of our world.

In her collection of essays, Rootprints, Cixous asks several more formal literary questions which begin to introduce gender into the equation as well: “Where does tragedy first take place?” Cixous asks. She answers her own rhetorical question: “In the body, in the stomach, in the legs as we know since the Greek tragedies.” Later Cixous writes, “Aeschylus characters tell, first and foremost, a body state. Myself—I realized this afterwards—I began by carrying out a rehabilitation of these body states since they are so eloquent, since they concretely speak the troubles of our souls. In this area I work under the microscope, as a spiritual anatomist.”

Clearly, it is impossible to cover all Cixous’ forty works of poetry and prose, or her hundred-so essays in this short piece. I would, instead, like to focus on one book that particularly spoke to me. As it is the subjective and visceral impressions shared by a reader which Cixous felt was most important, I felt such an approach exciting and appropriate.

Like Cixous, I am the daughter of a mother born into European colonialism. My mother came from a Jewish family who had been in Palestine as far back as the 16oos, even before the British Mandate. My mother immigrated to America in 1946, before Israel declared independence from the British Empire. Consequently, Cixous’s struggle for self-definition against nationalistic, political, and religious stereotyping was very real and potent for me. The present conflict in Israel/Palestine often renders invisible any traces of family heritage before the current quandary where the Middle East now dangerously exists, disconnected and dispersed across meaningless boundaries. And like Cixous, I also experienced the early loss of a father. The personal language I found through writing was a process in which Cixous’s ongoing concern with the effects of cultural difference and exclusion resonated, as did the struggle for a self-defined identity. Though writing, Cixous has said, she became the sole mistress of her own country. Her country was where “everything is lost except words . . . at a certain moment for the person who has lost everything, whatever that is, moreover, a being or a country, language becomes the country. . . . In the beginning the gesture of writing is linked to the experience of disappearance, to the feeling of having lost the key to the world, of having been thrown outside. Of having urgently to regain the entrance, the breath, to keep the trace.” To this, she adds that the process of mourning and grief is the means by which, “one enters the country of language. I believe that one can only advance along the path of discovery, the discovery of writing or anything else (comes) from mourning and the reparation of mourning.”

In So Close Cixous powerfully evokes such a path of discovery. “I have no country except so profoundly planted in the folds of my flesh . . . ” She begins, “I can say retrospectively that I was born destined to be the hole and the cellar, a presentiment that I was forbidden from confessing for my first three years by the innocent jubilation of my parents on earth. Whereas I saw from the beginning that they were dust and I saw them return to dust, trodden beneath the soles of this supercountry (France) where my father thought he had a place. Whereas I always knew for roof I had the vault of a cellar or a stairway.”

Cixous tells the story of her return to Algiers in fragments, and subjective states—often opaque. It is a narrative of impressions, sensations, memories, and new encounters.

As the “story” progresses, Cixous receives a message from an old friend whom she knew in her early schooldays in Algeria. The character is based on a real person, Zohra Drif, a woman who had joined the Algerian Resistance and become a heroine in the uprising. Zohra and Helene were in the lycee in Algiers in the fifties. Zohra planted a bomb that targeted the Milk Bar Cafe in the French quarter, killing three people. She went into hiding in the Arabic Casbah but was eventually caught and sentenced to twenty years hard labor by the French nationalists. Years later she was pardoned by Charles de Gaulle and became a prominent senator in the new Algerian senate after the nation finally won its independence from France.

In “So Close,” Cixous and Zohra meet in Paris for the first time in thirty-five years. Soon afterward Cixous departs for Algiers. The meeting is brief, and hardly told, but somehow it is the affirmation Cixous needs to go back to Algiers, a return which she apprehends as revisiting “the vast limitless zone where graze phantoms, vague possibilities, silhouettes, . . . somewhere on this expanse of continual silence I once inscribed a name . . .”

Zohra, in sharp contrast to Cixous, lived the history of Algiers as it struggled with an external enemy. Though female, she in many ways serves as a complement to Cixous’ “feminine” positions and acts as a sort of alter ego, an obverse reflection of resistance. It is not simply a case of competing forces. Whereas Cixous survives and gradually triumphs over the oppression created by the French take-over of her native land by creating a personal language and alternative literature of subjectivity, Zohra acts in the more immediate spheres of political action. They become the conscience of each other’s choices. Cixous asks herself, What is Zohra going to say?, after their reunion in Paris.

“I recognize that for thirty-five years an allegory has taken place of Algeria in my head, ” Cixous writes, as she prepares to leave at last for her trip, “And before the allegory was produced they rode bicycles on the land, they laughed and I heard them, I contemplated their radiance, they were going to be extinguished and they didn’t know it. As the end approaches our lives behave strangely like a book that, when it approaches the beginning, stumbles and tramples the space before the text in a manic and solemn delay, as if to put one self into words was to put an end. This is what I, powerless but tenacious, have observed ever since I began to shelter in the house the idea of a book that would go to Algiers. Here is a being tormented by the idea of going, delay at dawn, delay at dusk, it cannot last longer and it a robust phantom. One spends years in the lunar light of the airport. One is attached to it by the most ancient and simply known pact, the pact of being one of the born or the dead of that country. There is no explanation. There is an umbilical cord. It is a shadow of a cord, an immaterial cord, the effect of which one feels planted in the cerebellum. We are the consequences. This pain was my inheritance of my mother, and the admirable manifestation of the natural forces of my mother.”

Once she finally arrives, Cixous revisits childhood sites in Oran in a quest to find the grave of her father inside a cemetery of forgotten Jewish deaths. Cixous’ journey is, ultimately, towards a delayed grief, and through mourning, it becomes a story of self -completion. The piece is abundantly layered in the intensely personal language of the self, culminating in an affirmation that language is, indeed, one’s only true “country.”

It is finding her father’s grave in an overgrown cemetery outside the city, and the reparation this engenders inside her that concludes Cixous’ long journey through the actual and emotional geography of her fragmentary memories. At last, she writes, she is: ” . . . so close to the goal of my life. I sat down on the ground at the foot of the wall. I took my deepest slowest longest maturing interior running start. I began to lift the world, and myself and I came out of self enslavement. This is mourning at last. Without warning one passes, one is past . . . where did it go asks the pain? So close so close . . . I set the word Papa in front of me and I watered it with tears. Finally at the cypress I find myself me who was at a loss for you and I find you as if I was finding sight, the precise truth the precise-making truth of which I was deprived . . . “

“So Close ” is exemplary of the many ways Cixous articulates her sense of being on the outside, of not belonging to any particular community or nation. Her use of imagery asserts that the personal unconscious itself is a space outside of culture. The repressed unconscious begins to mirror the repression existing in other colonized places, reminding us of our relation to the world of nations.

In fact, Cixous suggests a whole new relation between forms of relation. For Cixous, the individual psyche and the global spheres of action and politics can be juxtaposed to reflect on themselves. The “feminine writer” in particular, Cixous seems to stress, must work to relinquish a “socially constructed self,” creating a form of “exchange” between the feminine and masculine in which “each one would keep the other alive and different.”

But, regardless of gender, the writer must write about “love,” Cixous asserts, about “love which is our fate, [a] twisted thing, tortuous, delicate, eager, insatiable, the best, and worst thing, the junction point between everything and nothing, the oxymoronic knot of all existence, love which makes cattle meat of us—but never with hate . . . ” Cixous desires a complementary rather than an antagonistic relation between the sexes, not gender politics per se, but a missing sense of balance which equity could restore.

In “Rootprints” Cixous imagines writing the “last book on earth”. She eloquently sums up her essential literary ideas this way: ” . . . the last book cannot lie: no time, “she tells us, “Each phrase (is) the truest one . . . The essential drama: living . . . Action consists of the essential living, loving. Knowing that one’s going to die. All that remains is living.” To this she adds: “Not forgetting doesn’t mean not forgetting oneself..( It) Means forgetting oneself just enough. No more self . . . And here, the body also has a thing or two to say. It is very tiring to write. It is a high speed exercise. Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth.”

Cixous’ work will always remind us that writings are created by real bodies. “It is as if I were writing on the inside of myself,” she shows us again in every piece she authors, whether it’s an essay, a poem, or work of prose, “It is as if the page were really inside. The least outside possible. As close as possible to the body. As if my body enveloped my own paper.” Through a monumental abundance of literary work, Cixous also shows us again and again that what is most meaningful in living can be found and uncovered in the scattered traces of our individual and personal experiences.

“What is most true is poetic. That is our privilege in language,” Cixous shows us, “To think that we have at our disposal the biggest thing in the universe, and that it is language. This may be why so many people do not write: because it is terrifying. And conversely, it is what makes certain people write: because it’s intoxicating.” That power—a power coming from a combined subjectivity and writing —is also the source from which we, writer and reader, can create and share a language which transcends a nation and thereby redefines our sense of belonging to history and the world.


HysteraLeora Skolkin-Smith is the author of Hystera. You can learn more about her and her book at our website. This article was originally published by The Quarterly Conversation.

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