Hélène Cixous

It was a delight to go hear Cixous read at SUNY Albany last night. My colleague and I arrived early and got parking. There was even time to run to the library to pick up a book I wanted. I was reluctant to cut short my grad class (AKA my reason to go on living this semester–let’s not talk about the freshman class who make me pull my hair out) but I knew I would regret passing up a chance to see this inspiring scholar/writer who seems to effortlessly accomplish so much.

It took no time at all for the room to be packed. We had the usual rambling introduction from the permanently rumpled Donald Faulkner (like I should talk), then a second introduction (whose name I did not catch) who tried to fit a lifetime of scholarship into a few paragraphs. Cixous read first from her autobiographical book The Day I Wasn’t There, a section focusing on the memory of seeing a three-legged dog in the bois on May Day (Abandonment day) that looked like a “Tintin dog” [hence the picture of Milou above] and eagerly searched faces for a place to belong. Cixous of course reflected somewhat ambivalently on this moment; born in Algeria, stripped of French citizenship during the war because she was a Jew, living and celebrated now in France, she does not have a “home” as she corrected a questioner later. “Ask Beckett,” she said by way of explanation, mentioning other writers who found themselves in exile for one reason or another.

After reading a couple of dreams from another book (“we should not read dreams in translation, but we will”) she anwered questions about her writing process. She is so precise about everything, it was interesting to hear that she writes “like a painter,” longhand at a desk full of “tens, no, hundreds, no, thousands, no, tens of thousands” of scraps of paper of all sizes with 50 or so pens and pencils. For ten hours or more at a stretch, she just writes and writes “with the sun” — such luxury! My colleague and i were talking about how hard it is to imagine having that kind of time to write (and whether we could use it–shades of the writer’s colony!). “I have about four computers, but they’re all virtual.”

I am glad I went to hear her read, to hear her speak. It has filled me with hope again after a rather discouraging couple of weeks or so. To hear her speak with such confidence, self-assurance — never arrogant, not that, but certainty that her writing is important, that she will find herself in good company with Hugo and Flaubert. I think we tend to lack that sense of history in our writing in this country, that there’s a discomfort with the same past that Cixous feels herself to be in active dialogue with as she writes. Speaking of Hugo’s careful columns (writing on the right, corrections on the left, “and there were almost none!”) and Flaubert’s endless rewriting, revisions of single sentences, Cixous was clear that she fit into neither extreme: “I am idiosyncratic, untranslatable.” Though, of course, she has been translated many times. In fact one of her translators was there that night, prompting Cixous to say “translators are heroes” as well as “adoptive mothers.” In the end, “we are all translators,” trying to get wht is in our heads to others as precisely as possible. Writing, revision–I was intrigued by her simple assurance that in writing, like music, you can always hear the “false note.” I would like to think so, but I guess I doubt myself too much to feel that same sense of confidence. Something for me to work on. Cixous is a great example for an unapologetic intellectual in the 21st century who simply works to the best of her ability and has confidence that her work is worth doing.