David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Wading in Waist-High Water: The Lyrics of Fleet Foxes, which contains frontman Robin Pecknold’s complete lyrics from 55 Fleet Foxes songs, alongside notes on his creative processes, inspirations, and motivations, capturing the poetic and inventive storytelling that is a hallmark of the band’s music. Says Brandon Taylor in his introduction to the book, “There is something quite moving about seeing the lyrics of these fifty-six songs collected and assembled this way. Themes of family, friendship, love, destiny, loss, nature, and honest living bridge all of the albums and form the core set of concerns of this body of work. At the same time, you can see the evolution of the minds and hearts at work behind the lyrics.” Wading in Waist-High Water is out now from Tin House. Today’s conversation is a dream come true for me; one I’ve been thinking about with great anticipation and impatiently waiting to share with you. Occasionally, I get asked to be interviewed myself, almost always about being an interviewer, an interview about interviewing, something I’m now comfortable doing even though I prefer to be on the other side of the microphone, not in the spotlight. But recently, the writer Constance Malloy interviewed me for her blog, The Burning Hearth, a very in-depth three-part interview and one that is unlike any I’ve experienced in that it focused at first on my own writing; and because she started by asking about a piece of non-fiction of mine, that is, to put it lightly, intense and personal, the conversation becomes intense and personal. Past guest on the show on the Crafting with Ursula series, William Alexander, said that it reveals my superpower origin story which I thought was really funny and great, but also kind of true in the sense that I wasn’t bit by a radioactive spider, but we do explore multiple things that happened to me as disruptive and improbable as a radioactive spider, as it relates to my own journey around listening and interviewing. That isn’t why I’m bringing this up today, though I will link to this conversation in the email that goes out to supporters. But near the end of part two of this interview with Constance, the part where she’s asking me about interviewing, she asks me if I would talk about any teasers about who is coming on the show in the future, and I told her that I like to hold that information close to my chest because selfishly, there is a lot of joy for me in the launch of an episode and the surprise of who it is. But I told her that I reserve one or two slots every year for improbable Hail Marys based on my own personal imagined dream conversations of people I both can’t imagine will say yes and ones that, if they do, will be particularly fun to launch and share with the world. I told Constance that this fall, had one of those improbable yeses that I couldn’t believe and wouldn’t believe until it actually happened and that I was supposed to call them on the phone to discuss the logistics, and I told Constance, it seemed unreal like picking up the phone and calling Albert Camus or Jorge Luis Borges saying, “Hello, Albert. Remember me? I’m that podcaster in the United States, David Naimon?” This is my long way of saying how personally excited I am to share this conversation with Hélène Cixous, the person I didn’t name in that interview with Constance. Hélène Cixous is someone whose work has already changed history a half-century ago but whose writings today, her recent writings are still so incredibly vital, and beyond what she herself even imagined she would be writing 20 years ago looking forward. I bring up being interviewed as an interviewer by Constance also because I wanted to share my approach to today’s interview in relation to Hélène’s request that the conversation be about an hour. We haggled a little bit and settled upon 75 minutes more or less. The reason I bring this up is that our whole universe is to Cixous’s work over the past many decades, her work in literary and feminist theory for which she is most known only being one, her deep engagement with the work of other people’s writings, including her close friend, Jacques Derrida, but also her many works of theatrical writing, not to mention what characterizes many of her books of the last 20 years, hybrid works that I suppose could be called novel memoirs. But it feels like the borderlands that these novel memoirs are exploring are less between fiction and non-fiction as between the conscious and the unconscious, between our dreams and our waking life, between the present and the past, between memory and history, between imagination and memory, between the self and the other within the self. Really to even begin to talk about any of this well, to capture what Cixous has achieved and continues to achieve, would merit a conversation of many hours, one that pushes three hours perhaps like the one with Rosmarie Waldrop or the one with Jorie Graham. So as an interviewer I had to choose to try to touch on these many aspects of Cixous’s writing life, to survey this world in a way that would favor breadth rather than depth, or to really focus in on what makes her novel memoirs so uniquely her own thing to only suggest the other universes that we don’t explore, to do so so that we can really explore this one, to preference depth over breadth, which is what we do today, focusing on two of her most recent novel memoirs, which we talk about in relation to a book of hers that I adore from the 90s called Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, which I used to root her current works in a matrix of previous thought. Hélène’s translator of 20 years, Beverley Bie Brahic, was excited to hear that these hybrid works of Cixous would be the focus. Because like me, she feels like these works not only do not get the attention they deserve but that they are particularly vital and dynamic writings that will be read long after we are all gone. My final thoughts before we begin today are about translation. There are many possible benefits and rewards of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter, one of them is the ever-growing bonus audio archive. But within the archive, some of the most robust and substantive aspects of it are around translation. Whether it be the poet Arthur Sze walking us through how he would translate different eras of Chinese poetry as a way to usher his own poetry into a new phase, reading translations of his as illustrations of this, or poet Phil Metres who read some of his Russian translations, including of Arseny Tarkovsky, the father of the iconic filmmaker, but also many long-form conversations with the translators of books that I discuss with the authors in the main conversation. From Emma Ramadan to Ellen Elias-Bursać to Sophie Hughes. Today we are adding a long-form conversation with the Canadian poet and translator of Hélène Cixous, Beverley Bie Brahic, a conversation that is particularly intriguing because of the difficulties translating Cixous presents, difficulties beyond what most literary translations involve. Talking through these difficulties together really adds new layers and insights to what Hélène and I discuss in the main conversation. We also talk about Annie Ernaux’s Nobel win and the factors that might be at play behind the phenomenon that the lion’s share of Cixous’s work still remains untranslated into English. It’s a fabulous and particularly complementary addition to today’s conversation. The bonus audio archive is only one of an incredible number of things you can choose from when you become a supporter of conversations like this one on Between the Covers. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with none other than, Hélène Cixous.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, poet, novelist, playwright, feminist, theorist, literary critic, and philosopher, Hélène Cixous, is a writer and thinker that Jacques Derrida called the greatest writer in the French language. Cixous founded Université de Paris VIII and its Center for Women’s Studies, the first of its kind in Europe, and remains an emeritus professor of literature there. She’s the author of more than 70 works of theory, fiction, philosophy, plays, poetry, and critical essays that often create new modes of exploring relationships between history, autobiography, literature, language, psychology, the unconscious, and dreams. She has written extensively about other writers including Franz Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, and her extensive writing about Clarice Lispector is to be thanked for bringing Lispector’s work to the notice of a larger audience outside of Brazil. In feminist theory, she coined the term écriture féminine, women’s writing, a method in practice of literary writing which aims to deviate from traditional masculine logo and fallow-centric writing styles, one that examines the relationship between psychosocial inscription of the female body and female difference in language and text. While Cixous is considered a French writer and intellectual and is a longtime resident of France, neither of her parents is of French descent. Cixous was born and grew up in Oran, Algeria with a Sephardic North-African Jewish father and a German Ashkenazi Jewish mother. I bring this up because since the 1990s, Cixous has increasingly engaged both in her travels and her writings with the “places of origin” of her family, first in Algeria, and more recently in the last 20 years, a growing series of books about the town in Germany, Osnabrück that her mother fled from to Algeria before the town’s Jewish inhabitants were eradicated during the Nazi regime. These books include Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem, a memoir, winner of the French Voices Award for Excellence in Publication and Translation of which Maggie Nelson said, “Language in Cixous’s hands is molten, constantly opening onto fresh possibilities. Her Osnabruck Station to Jerusalem is an act of imagination, investigation, sojourn, and witness driven by terrible necessity and marbled with fierce, incomparable beauty.” The occasion of our talking today is the arrival of another of her books into English about Osnabrück coming this December from Seagull Books, in a translation by the Canadian poet and translator Beverley Bie Brahic, entitled Well-kept Ruins, a book Brian Dillon describes as drifting easily between memoir, the reported memories of others, and what must be imagined. A hybrid genre-defined memoir, Well-kept Ruins is, in Dillon’s words, moving, allusive, and formally daring. Welcome to Between the Covers, Hélène Cixous.
Hélène Cixous: Thank you, thank you, David.
DN: so in your book Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem, you say that when Osnabrück arrives in Oran, Algeria in 1938, in other words, when your mother arrives in 1938, it is the saved Osnabrück, the charming one, that your mother throughout your childhood recounted hundreds of stories about this wondrous Osnabrück to you. I think of this when you write in that book, “I cannot say that I have not lived in Osnabrück, as long as and longer than Oran,” and also, “There are days when Osnabrück is a dream. Days when I am born Osnabrück.” When you do eventually go to the city, there are ways, as a reader, it feels like, you’re entering a dream, you’re entering the stories that you lived in as a child the ghosts of these stories but also discovering the unspoken nightmares that your mother never told you, and your mother never planned to return to Osnabrück. You say in Well-kept Ruins that back in 1994, you wrote that you would never write about your mother. You seemed surprised in both of these books by the way your writing life is now circling or orbiting both Osnabrück and your mother. I was hoping maybe you could talk about this new somewhat enduring interest after many decades of feeling like neither your mother nor Osnabrück would become subjects of your work but now they’re both central to many of your books.
HC: Thank you, David. First of all, I just want to make a tiny correction, in 1938 is the date when my grandmother arrived in Oran after witnessing Kristallnacht. I don’t know how one says that in English.
DN: It’s the same way.
HC: She joined my mother in Oran when my mother was there in 1936 and prepared for my coming to this world in a completely new environment geographically, historically coming from Germany to Africa, so this was, for her, a huge adventure. But then, of course, it was at the height of Nazism. When my mother left Germany, it was full Nazism. But she was very lucid as a very young woman, and the moment the Nazis were in power and started inventing different and unheard-of repressions in this version, she took her suitcase and went away. Then my grandmother, her sister who was three years younger, followed her as she understood that my mother was completely aware of the near future. My grandmother didn’t follow. For me, it’s a huge question, which of course, I keep questioning for literary and philosophical reasons, how is it that some people had a kind of life instinct, which drove them to immediately find a door out, which is a huge theme, of course, how do you leave, how do you manage? Which is a question that is now a contemporary question. We have that with the Ukrainians, etc. You have to leave and do you leave? Why don’t you leave? And of course, for me, this was one of the mysteries of human nature. How do you pack? Why? And why don’t you when of course it is possible? There’s a moment in German history when it became impossible but there were a couple of years when you could leave, when you could flee, whatever, and when it was possible for you as an individual to manage going out it. These questions, of course, are haunting, they haunt all the people who try thinking, contemplating, analyzing these situations. Did my grandmother, for instance, wake up after Kristallnacht? Particularly, this is the subject of Well-kept Ruins, the synagogue was burnt down, the synagogue which her own father had decided to build in Osnabrück and who, the synagogue, for me it’s personified, who was a young synagogue. It was erected in 1906 so it has a very short life and then it disappeared in smoke and bones. Was it that? I don’t know anything about that. So I tried to figure out what she must have thought considering too that she belonged to a very large family. There were eight siblings and cousins of all kinds from all parts of Germany who either stayed, fled, survived, or were decimated and all sent to concentration camps. For me, it’s not simply a picturesque tale of Jews, it’s a real subject, a theme for meditation on decision on how human beings preserve life, or on the contrary, are almost drawn by death.
DN: Well, let me ask you a question about your own decision-making process. In Osnabrücks Station, you place two things in parallel, what you call the dangerous invitation, the invitation extended to your mother by the town of Osnabrück, a town that’s now devoid of Jewish life entirely. The town invites her to come back and be honored by them. Then this other invitation for you to speak at Hebrew University in Israel, which felt like another unwanted invitation, one that you said yes to because you wanted to say no, and of your mother you say, “She thought she could not not say no. She could not say no. She could not say yes.” I wanted to ask you about saying yes because you wanted to say no, not specifically related to Hebrew University necessarily, but perhaps in a broader sense in your work. You say explicitly in Osnabrück Station that you feared writing that book. In the first book you write on Osnabrück in 1999, itself also called Osnabrück, you write, “I should go once to Osnabrück with Maman to Osnabrück where I have never gone, I should, I should find the time the desire the station I thought and I tried to want to go there for her birthday.” In the end, you didn’t go there for many, many years after this line, but the line I tried to want to go there suggests a sense of peril to me. But what makes your work so powerful I think is your willingness to say yes when you want to say no. I wondered if you could speak to this, that perhaps the writing that you seek will be found inside of this no.
HC: Yes, we could have a whole philosophy, who would be yes and no, they’re not pure, they’re impure, particularly concerning real issues, earnest issues. It’s not just taking part in a meal, saying yes to a chocolate or whatever. We, as human beings, as humans trying to think and being thwarted in our thinking by all kinds of obstacles, we always turn, we’re always divided. We are never one. We are several. Every time we have to make a decision, “Shall I marry? No. Should I divorce? Yes, no. No, yes. No, yes, yes, yes, no. Yes.” That’s how we work, we are worked by all kinds of desires, fears, desire and fear mixed, of course, and for so many reasons which we discover gradually. Why do I want, not want, to go to Osnabrück? Of course it has to do with something in Osnabrück. Osnabrück is a tiny huge planet full of traces, of suggestions. It’s a metaphor for the universe. It’s a moon. This is explainable historically by anybody who goes to Osnabrück. There’s so many features, so many traits that explain the fact that it can attract or repel. But then of course it’s the meeting of the attraction or repulsion of Osnabrück and an individual Osnabrück who are over-determined. Of course, it’s a mathematical structure which we have to analyze. It’s very interesting. Through my writing, ever since I started writing, so a long time ago as you know, I realized that I had to face this permanent dilemma which is not mine, it’s that of all humans, except that very often, you repress the thing because it’s uncomfortable but then it makes you human. Should I do that or not? Shall I kill or not? And then who has decided that he’s going to kill? There are so many instances that bring him to killing, whereas he thinks he should not. I’m not [inaudible]. But he’s a human being as all of us are. It becomes something which is a kind of a play with fate. When you realize that so many times, you’re sure or your firm that you’re going to do something or not, when there is resistance, then there it is interesting, the battle, the spiritual, moral, philosophical battle is important. There it is. As a writer, of course, it’s there that writing should go and explore. Of course, in my own life particularly, so often have I said [inaudible], I shall never do that,” and five minutes later I do it. It’s not because I’m so absurdly hesitating, no. The battle inside between the unconscious and conscious has been going on. Of course, if we were in foreign regions, then we would say it’s an example of resistance or [inaudible]. Should I resist or should I resist resistance?
DN: Well, maybe in light of this question around yes-no, it made me think of something from your book in the 1990s, the Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing where we must pass through three schools, The School of the Dead, The School of Dreams, and The School of Roots. But before anything, we must pass through The School of the Dead. You say in this section that “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life.” You also say, “The only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write. The desire to die is the desire to know; it is not the desire to disappear, and it is not suicide, it is the desire to enjoy.” You quote Kafka who says, “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” And Clarice Lispector who says, “I wanted to die once and come back to life-simply in order to know the juice of life that is death. My days are numbered without my knowing it. I would like to die now—already—in the fullness of life—and after death remember for the rest of my life.” You say very few books hurt us, and the books that do break the frozen sea and kill us are the books that bring us joy. I think of this when your son asks you a question in one of these Osnabrück books, “Do you know anyone an Osnabrück? My son asks me,” and you answer, “A crowd of dead people. People who are very much alive in books. They are waiting for me, I say.” I feel this sense of you putting yourself at peril in your writing. There are moments when I feel like as a reader, I lose my breath. I was hoping maybe in light of this, you could speak to this, to The School of the Dead from your book on writing and this crowd of dead people who are very much alive waiting for you in this light.
HC: It’s something that, of course, is my way of being as the ancients were most familiar with, that is knowing, feeling, behaving as what they used to call being mortals, they were mortals. Somehow, our culture now, or our civilization, has put the mortal feeling at the distance. But for me it’s there. We are mortals. But what does it mean? Does it mean, for instance, that we were threatened, we’re poor things or desperate things? No, on the contrary. It is that we have to do with the unknown, the unpredictable, which is the sort of life. If I’m structured like that, I do realize that it’s an inheritance, not only my historical genealogical inheritance as a Jew of different continents and orientations but also because in my own strictly individual story, I started with this. I was born at the height of world destruction, and of course, I knew about it, and I was fascinated by that, and at the same time, although I was a witness to destruction and death, not only because it was the second World War, but also because of my family’s genealogy, but also because Algeria was a colonial country where death was the master of the country as Celan would say. I knew we had to do with the extremity as it is accompanied, as it’s not dissociable from joy. My family was full of joy, full of laughter, and full of humor, and at the same time, in the middle of turmoil. Of course, it did, for the miracle of life, that threatened and how do we connect with this? Because we’re fearful. When we’re afraid, we’re afraid of death always. I’m afraid of water, I’m afraid of being drowned, etc. It’s very strong. Thinking about it, and I think that all philosophers had to deal with that, I used to enjoy and discuss with Montaigne, our great philosopher writer who used to say that que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir, to think in philosophical ways is the only way to learn how to die. He was terrified by death. He would think about it all the time. When you read the essays, as Shakespeare has done, because he read Montaigne, during the two-thirds of his fantastic unique work and way of reflecting on all human faith, suddenly he thought no, maybe it’s not really learning to die, maybe it’s learning to live. He realized that they were both the faces of the same approach to life-death. You cannot think of one without the other. Of course, there’s another influence that suddenly permeates life, because when you start aging, which starts very, very, very, I’m hesitating, should I say early or late? I want the truth. Then gradually, death comes nearer and nearer and nearer, and you will realize that death isn’t only death, we have nothing to say about this, it doesn’t exist. What we have to say is about what do we do with life with what is given, with time, how do we transform time in creation?
DN: Well thinking about the fear of death, you say again in the Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing that we can hope to move closer to everything we can’t say without dying or fright through The School of Dreams, that The School of Dreams is located under the bed, and that we get to The School of Dreams through a detour. In that section, you talk about Jacob’s ladder in his dream and the importance of the angels going down, descending the ladder. I’m thinking of this descending in relation to something you say in Well-kept Ruins. You say, “This is not a return. No one will ever return to Osnabrück. This is archeology.” An archeology of course makes me think of a descent into the earth. But your archeology is very dreamlike, I think. We travel with you to Osnabrück. We are with your memories of what your mother said about it. We are with what you yourself have imagined about it. We are with the way you dig into and unearth the history of the place itself. For instance, the watchtower where hundreds of women accused of being witches were held before trial and execution. Much like your midwife mother was accused of being a witch in Algeria before she was imprisoned and expelled as a foreign presence there. Then you link that to the astronomer Johannes Kepler passing through Osnabrück whose own mother, like yours, was accused of witchcraft. We have this sedimentation of memory, imagination, history, and also your in-the-moment experience, which involves these great conversations, these back and forth between you and your children, your son and your daughter, as this experience of you being there unfolds. The way this is all metabolized in your mind, just like you were talking just now about Montaigne and Shakespeare, you metabolize all of this archeology through the lens of literature and myth on top of it all, where, as you say, “I followed the traces of Job trampled and skinned alive in German.” Or the way the carcass of the burned synagogue after Kristallnacht is described as like King Hamlet assassinated. Like in much of your work, your journey into the underworld is often intersecting with figures from Homer as well. I bring this all up because speaking about The School of Dreams, you say, “We may have to leave our bed like a river overflows its bed. Perhaps leaving the legitimate bed is a condition of the dream.” In this spirit, I feel like sometimes, I’m reading your writing as we’re in Osnabrück and I don’t know where I stand in your words, I’m in a river where the solid ground suddenly might drop away into deeper water where your voice and other voices aren’t separated entirely but feel like they’re part of a stream. I wondered if you could speak a little bit about your notion of what writing as archeology is, and if it is partially an archeology of the unconscious as much as it is an archeology of the place of Osnabrück and its history.
HC: Just let me insist that it’s not a theory, I don’t theorize on that. It’s the way I’m inspired, driven, I follow the spirits of writing. Of course, what I realized is that there is no real separation between all the relations we have with the dead and the not-yet-born, which is one of the reasons too, for the presence of my children who are the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen with them. They represent centuries, further centuries. As I myself are, I should say are actually, it would be more accurate, peopled by former centuries who are still there, who are quite present, I feel, where I live, even while we speak about present events, now I was speaking with my friends and my children of what is happening now with the Ukrainians, for me I realized, well, it’s another figure of Exodus. So it has already happened quite differently with other causes, other results, and permanent features, the fact that how do you flee. It’s most striking and moving. It’s exactly as when COVID started its reign on mankind, I thought, well, it’s exactly what he, who wrote The War of the Peloponnesian, Thucydides, but that’s before Christ, it’s the beginnings of history really, or it might have been, after all, even if it was 400 years before Christ, it’s also a 1,600 years after with the [inaudible]. It’s today, and today is yesterday and tomorrow always. When you’re aware of that, all the time you belong to so many times that is very contemporary. It’s not something artificial. I’m built like that. I feel like that. That’s regarding time. I was following the traces of the witches in Osnabrück, it’s extraordinary. Why is it extraordinary? It’s extraordinary from this point of view, for instance, it’s a city which was a small city in the time of my grandmother and my mother, which has 20,000 inhabitants, now it’s 165,000. It’s a big city in Germany. You go there and you go as my mother did. I too, if my mother went, I went with her. Even if I was not born, I was going too. Following the square where her house used to stand, you take a very narrow alley or lane, it goes down like that and in 100 or 200 meters, you’re in front of the river where they would drown the witches. The lane is called Witches Lane and all the inhabitants in Osnabrück take it. It’s still there as it was almost a thousand years ago. It goes on and on. It’s there. It’s not forgotten. It’s not wiped out. You’re still following and accompanying the witches, and of course, they are shouting, howling, and you don’t know whether you’re for them or against them, etc., it goes on like that.
DN: To stay with this idea that this isn’t a theory for you, this is the way you experience things, I wonder if it’s the way we all experience things, that we keep these different things separate as categories in writing but in real life, in real consciousness, we don’t keep them separate as categories. Like I’m thinking of the review in English of your latest book Well-Kept Ruins and Brian Dillon saying how your book drifts between memoir, the reported memories of others and what must be imagined, which I think we probably are drifting between all the time when we’re not writing, but it does feel like your books refuse category or genre, or as some people say, they transgress category. When you say things like, “All Germany knows that no one knows where Osnabrück is, Osnabrück is a fiction,” I think that points to your transgression of category too but your writing also does this on the level of the sentence and of the paragraph. I want to read something that your translator of Osnabrück Station, Peggy Kamuf, says at the beginning of that book, “For Cixous, writing is first of all an intransitive practice, by which I mean that it does not convert written language immediately into transitive objects or referents but suspends referential movement in its own space of writing. There are many ways in which it accomplishes this.” Then she talks about how your sentences can, without warning, become poetic lines with white space. That some sentences don’t end with periods where commas may or may not be there so that the sentences sometimes might spill over, not end, or not close. You’re also often playing with multiple meanings semantically of words but also multiple ways different words might share a sound with each other which must be an impossible challenge for your translators, I would imagine. Peggy says about all of this, “To read Cixous is to watch writing live and breathe on the page, as in a kind of theater where the characters are letters and words.” For me, I feel like it adds to this dream logic of the reading experience as well. But how would you speak to the ways you’re writing at the level of syntax or punctuation or at levels of the sentence, writing outside of the riverbed of convention and norms? Could you speak a little bit to some of those choices that you’re making on the level of the line in the sentence?
HC: I don’t choose, of course. Writing chooses. It’s very powerful. When I think or imagine or I have hallucinations that I go to a permanent theater, then I start writing and writing is swifter, more inventive than I am. It leads, I follow. I follow. Let me tell you something about fiction. I appreciate what Peggy said because it’s quite true and important. You quoted Kepler, and this is where then I lost my thread and I want to go back to that too. I’ll tell you a secret. You should tell me, “If you tell me a secret, it won’t be a secret anymore.” Never mind. I’ll tell you a secret. It will become a secret again after a while. Kepler. Kepler went to Osnabrück and didn’t stay because the book told me. Where did he stay in Osnabrück? I tell him, “There on this page.” Kepler never went to Osnabrück.
DN: Oh, wow.
HC: That’s a secret, so don’t say it. [laughter] But why not? No one can say when reading me, “This is true. This is a memoir. This is a memory.” No. I, myself, I don’t know. It’s the writing and the book who decide. It’s obvious that Kepler had to go to Osnabrück, which is one of the reasons why no one has ever suspected that he didn’t go to Osnabrück. He went to the moon. He was on the moon. He was persuaded that he was on the moon. He wrote that fantastic book on the moon. I myself suspect him to tell us a secret which is not a secret, but then it’s making a difference between those different possibilities. This is what makes, for the political aspect of creation, I want to say, simply writing, and of course, what I resist but this is from the very beginning of my starting to write. I resist what I might call now poetically correct. No, it’s never correct. It’s never correct. It’s just fantastic, always. We lose fantasy when we are in reality, what we call reality which is, of course, underlined by unreality, but we’re supposed to. The moment you start writing, there is certainly an instance somewhere inside a voice that says, “You should communicate with the readers. Don’t invent. Say the truth,” which doesn’t exist, but the written truth is the truth, of course. It’s like that. You cannot write something which doesn’t resist the disbelief of the reader. It is believable. No one will prove that Kepler never went to a Osnabrück. Then I realized that I discovered suddenly that if Kepler never went to Osnabrück, Hitler stayed in Osnabrück, which I realized much later the wealth of the different worlds that communicate and exchange when you write.
DN: Well, to return to your story specifically, I’m thinking of you saying, “My own writing was born in Algeria out of a lost country of the dead father and the foreign mother.” I want to talk about the impossibility of origins, of forming an identity with a stable coherent sense of origin but instead of maybe writing from or toward the impossibility of that. The first chapter of the Well-Kept Ruins is called To the Center of the Center of the World. In that chapter you say “Where are we off to to the center of the world? Say I, as always.” When I think of you traveling to the center of the center, with Osnabrück now being that center but also being a place of expulsion, I think of a lecture you gave on the notion of the garden and gardens, of course, evoke mythically both origin and expulsion also, but you talked about a garden in Algeria when you were a child, called Military Circle that was prohibited to both Jews and Arabs but that you would peer into. But eventually, because your father was posted as an army doctor for the French, you were let in due to his association. You say you never felt more outside than when you were finally let in. You were spat upon by fair-haired French children who called you a lying Jew. But thinking about being at the center of the center of the world, I think about when you described a nursemaid who referred to you as trash and poked the end of her umbrella into your navel in a way that you say hurt you both physically and psychically. I guess I wondered about this wounded navel because the navel itself is a locked door to a place you can’t return. When I read the line from your book the Reveries of the Wild Woman where you say, “The whole time I was living in Algeria I would dream of one day arriving in Algeria, I would have done anything to get there,” it reminds me of how you also write about Osnabrück which makes me wonder if the center of the center of the world is really an impossible place, a nowhere and an everywhere.
HC: It’s very beautiful, what you say. [laughs] Well, what is interesting for us is to realize that we go towards the circle center. It’s not a promise then, maybe it’s the promised paradise where we never arrive except to be expelled. It’s the same operation. That’s physical or mathematical. You have to have a starting point which is the navel, after all, you’re quite right, in order to then elaborate ways, directions, aims which are nebulous. All scientists experience that. They have hypotheses and these hypotheses are all powerful. They carry the scientific mind to moons, to planets, etc., then when they arrive, it’s something else. Of course, it’s wonderful that it should be something else but it’s like that that happens. In this something else, there is progress, something that has changed places and promises something further. When you quoted those pieces that you’ve seen in my writing, it’s exactly like the Kepler example. It’s a mixture of absolute crude reality. That is the experience which is the primal scenes of my life which happened when I was three and the date is, absolutely without doubt, how do I know that? It’s because it had to do with the fact that we were admitted in the garden, within the forbidden garden, the white forbidden garden when my father became a lieutenant in the army as a doctor. That wasn’t necessarily in 1939. In 1940, the Jews were expelled from everything. This happened in 1939. I was just three. I remember every word. I’m not making fun of that. It happened. I learned everything at that point. Of course, I didn’t give all the details because it’s a huge novel in itself. One thing which is not true but in other ways true is the quotation you did of the maid who uses the end of her umbrella to poke the navel because this did not happen outside reality. It happened inside reality. What happened with the maids amounted exactly to this. The metaphor is true. It’s true. That’s what happened.
DN: Thinking further about impossible origins or homes, your father’s family, I would imagine, probably arrived in North Africa after the expulsion from Spain and Portugal. During your childhood, the Jews of Algeria are made stateless by the Vichy Government and your mother was not only a refugee in flight from Germany to Algeria but also someone who becomes a midwife after your father dies, and remains in Algeria after the revolution, seeing Algeria as her home, working there as a midwife but she’s ultimately imprisoned and expelled again a second time in her life as a foreign presence and you write, “All of a sudden, my mother, who is at one with the Algerian body as she never was the German bodies, is expelled like a foreign body. Like a sea from one wave to the next, excommunicated,” and you explore the circumstances of her expulsion in Well-Kept Ruins as you go through her belongings, her suitcase, and that suitcase becomes many other suitcases. For instance, when you say, “As usual at the border with the next dream, I see that disheartened man who could be a cousin, it’s Walter Benjamin the man who can’t close his suitcase.” Could you talk to us a little about the pretense under which your mother was imprisoned and kicked out? You do go into that in the book to a degree. What was the reason, or reasons, that your mother was kicked out of Algeria?
HC: Well, I have to ask her. [inaudible] because she doesn’t like to speak about that, so I have to ask her permission. It’s something that has hurt us and has hurt her even more than what happened in Germany because she had a distance regarding Germany from the beginning as experiencing what was happening in Germany with her father who died for Germany, who was a soldier and who enrolled as a German. In Algeria, as I say which is true, she accomplished completely something that she had never dreamed about, never knew it would happen and she became herself completely. That is an independent woman who was helping life to overcome all kinds of obstacles. She was an excellent midwife. After all, she escorted thousands of Algerians to history, to life. She didn’t identify at all with Algerian history or with men in Nigeria. She was on the side but without being political. She was naturally spontaneously on the side of the difficulty for women in Algeria to enjoy their lives. It was terrible. There she had found her necessity on earth. When she was ejected, she was deprived of something which she deserved, which she had built completely, and where she was excellent. This happened and it was particularly striking, first, there was one episode, the one when she was put into prison and it was on the very days of independence. Suddenly, she disappeared. I was in France with my family and no news. She had disappeared. It took a number of days, maybe two or three weeks, before one of her assistants would reach me and tell me she was in prison, in the prison where all Algerian resistance used to be incarcerated. It was a kind of plot that was elaborated by certain new Algerian crooks who wanted her to go so that they could appropriate the nursing house of my mother where she put all the children to life. She was accused of aborting women, not bringing children to life, and for this reason, she was immediately arrested. Actually, it was demonstrated, but I had to take a lawyer, etc., it’s a long story that this was completely made up. The people who had elaborated and achieved completely this plot were arrested and [inaudible] completely. It was [inaudible] end, but it’s not a happy end, of course. The interesting thing is what my mother did with the prison. She turned it into a house where she was imprisoned with other women who were all poor things, prostitutes, thieves, etc., all women of course. It was a community. She enjoyed it. Actually, she would tell me, “Don’t say it because I enjoy myself here. At least, I don’t have to get up during the night to run.” [laughs] But of course it was a trauma.
DN: So she continued to live in Algeria after she got out of prison before she was expelled, right?
HC: Then there’s also something lovely, that is the director of the prison made friends with her, so later she had three daughters who then had children whom my mother brought to light. It was a nice friendly story. But of course, she knew that it wasn’t safe. Most of the French had been expelled anyway, she didn’t belong to that population. She didn’t identify at all with the pied noirs in Algeria. She still was German but outside nationality. Her nationality was before documents, before the children had an identity. Then suddenly, there was the second alert in ‘71, so nine years later, she was again called by the police, then she didn’t wait. She took a suitcase and it took her a couple of hours and she was out. All the remaining medical people in Algeria, a handful of people who were supposed to be French, were expelled at that time. All of them.
DN: Well, you have this line in the preface to Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem where you write, “Going to Osnabrück is like going to Jerusalem, it’s finding and losing. It’s exhuming secrets, resuscitating the dead, letting the mute speak. And it’s losing the absolute freedom to be Jewish or not be Jewish at will, a freedom that I enjoy conditionally,” and I wondered about this last part “Losing the absolute freedom to be Jewish or not be Jewish at will,” if that is related to these expulsions or if you’re thinking of something else when you say that line.
HC: That’s a very common experience when you go to Israel, which I don’t do, I had done it so seldom and it’s problematic. I’ve never been a Zionist, my mother was never a Zionist, then I belong to this huge diaspora where you have all kinds of choices, attitudes, etc., to it, deity and particularly now towards Israel, what was Palestine, Israel, etc., and you have so many options of relating to this being which is Israel, whether it’s the causes and consequences of its appearing on the earth among countries and country among countries. For me, I do know, but I have no hesitation there, that fundamentally, I’m Jewish but in the European way, or the Ashkenazi way, I don’t know, it’s not even that. I have often had to realize that there were causes, urgent causes, human causes which required my being committed and involved completely. When I was a child, I grew up as anti-colonialism for the freedom of all people, independence, and the hatred that was aimed at me every day, I was used to that. It was triggered by anti-Semitism, a mixture of anti-Semitism of both anti-Semitism, that of the Algerians and of the French, of the Europeans. I thought, “Well, first, of course, racism.” An anti-racist. At the moment I arrived in France, I realized something that I had not expected. I realized I was a woman and that the enemy on earth for all cultures was a woman. It was a surprise for me. I should have thought about that in Algeria, but no, the urgent cause was then that, racism, which is still there of course. Now, here in Europe where I live by chance, I’m a chance inhabitant of Europe, I keep feeling that I enjoy it. I could say I was born a girl, for instance, that I was born a diaspora Jew who enjoyed the privilege of possibly being, for instance, a French by chance, completely by chance and it’s completely insecure, but I might have been all kinds of different nationalities. I’m not obliged every day to be a Jew, feel Jew, think Jew. No. I belong to a fantastic nation which is that of literature. I feel at ease. I feel at home. I’m naturally a writer. I belong to books. But of course, the moment there is a real danger, not made up, or a movement of unfairness, of disgusting hatred that is turned against the Jewish phantasm, in people’s minds, then I am Jewish. It’s not that I stopped being Jewish. No. It’s not the first care that requires all my strength, which makes for my possibility also to identify with other populations or who suffer and who, after all, have the same kind of faith, except that the Jewish faith is exceptional because it’s so long lasting, it’s everlasting, but the cause of women is everlasting. It’s going on and on as long as being a Jew. Now, going to Israel, which happens very rarely in my existence, is not being able to be not a Jewish. You go there, you’re Jewish, and Jewish I should say, you’re one of the thousand ways of being Jewish in Israel. That’s a huge grad of possibilities, hostilities, family hatreds, etc. To this, I don’t belong but I do belong to a less overdetermined human context.
DN: Well, maybe we can stick with this notion of over-determination when we talk about the notion of the well-kept ruin within the book the Well-Kept Ruins. In Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem, you ask yourself, “Why do I come here?” and your answer is, “I have come to cultivate ruin and flourish memory,” but in Well-Kept Ruins, you encounter, instead of the carcass of a burned out synagogue, you discover what you call a “Well-kept ruin, a wire mesh cage of neatly stacked blonde stones,” then in that book, it goes “Look at that, my son says. It’s something you might see in a garden. It’s the last word in landscaping. It requires explanation if you don’t know what it is,” and you write, “They show the stones. They hide the destruction. Death is absent. There is no ruin. What is heart-rending in a ruin, they removed, sterilized. These neat remains, labeled and caged, are a portrait of my inner ruins.” It almost feels like the well-kept-ness of the ruin is an extension of what caused the ruin in the first place, a memorial to cleanliness and decorum perhaps. You don’t say this explicitly but it almost feels like it could be an inadvertent memorial to the Nazis rather than the Jews. But I wondered if you could speak more to this notion of well-kept-ness which you respond to quite deeply in the book.
HC: Yes, it’s a good question. Of course, for me it doesn’t relate at all to the Nazi aesthetics, but there is something which can impede in the way you might perceive that. First of all, I noticed, because it was I think only the third time I went to Osnabrück, that I had gone walking in the street without realizing that it was there. It wasn’t very demonstrated or I avoided seeing it. It’s not very big. As I say, it’s the size of my son. When I realized that the third time I went through this very elegant street which, of course, caught my attention, and I saw that, I thought, “Well, there are so many memorials everywhere, [inaudible] in Germany.” Some are, for me, moving and convincing. This is very touching in Osnabrück because it’s shampooed as if they had breath, the mustache, and it’s on shelves except that it’s like, as I said, a hencoop. It’s a battery. It’s almost frightening. It’s been cleaned. Maybe this comes from the depths and innocence, and I think that it’s respectable. [inaudible] of the Germans towards order, well keeping, being attentive, probably because the term, that did that. Of course, it’s important. One must include one stone. They’ve been counted, I don’t know how many there are. I thought it’s a kind of metaphor of the huge differences between inner drives towards aesthetics, but aesthetic is something that has to do with the soul of course, so I thought, “Who could, in front of this memorial, have an emotion?” It’s impossible. The emotion is what I described. It’s so kind and it comes from a good heart, that the city has done this and done it scrupulously.
DN: Well, my final question, I wanted to connect this sense of well-kept-ness and cleanness to something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about ever since I read it in the last section of Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. It’s the section called The School of Roots. In Well-Kept Ruins, the book we’re talking about today, you say, “The ruin exudes, it sweats. You can see nature coming back. The ruin comes back. It’s the beginning of a story,” and when I think about a true ruin exuding or a true ruin sweating, unlike the one in the cage with the neatly stacked stones, a ruin coming back, a ruin as a beginning, I think of something that you say about Lispector in relationship to Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two iconic Jewish writers that you write about, Kafka and Lispector, who both have impossible origins too, Kafka, a German-speaking Jew in Prague, Lispector, a Ukrainian-Jewish refugee in Brazil, that they’re both focusing on the unclean on vermin, on cockroaches, on the dirty other that we want to expel. In The School of Roots, you talk about their prohibitions in Leviticus against that which is unclean or immonde, which literally means something out of this world or outside of this world but is usually translated as unclean, impure, or abominable, and Lispector’s character literally puts the paste oozing from the cockroach into her mouth in The Passion According to G.H. You say that, for you, writing and women are associated with abomination, so by extension uncleanness also, and for Lispector, joy is immonde, unclean, being immonde with joy. You say that if we are in joy and in love with writing, we should try to write the immonde book. The immonde book is the book without an author. It is the author that makes us experience a kind of dying that drops the self, the speculating self, the speculating clever I. It is a book stronger than the author. I think of this sweating ruin that allows nature to come back when you talk about this unclean book which perhaps is the unclean ruin. Do you see this taboo of touching or consuming the unclean as related to these Osnabrück books in some way?
HC: This notion of the unclean or immonde as it is in The Passion of Lispector, is different from that of Kafka. It’s a vermin. It’s, on the contrary, a way of being at peace with what is supposed to be a vermin. It’s not pejorative. It’s a way, on the contrary, of welcoming, adopting as equal what the law and disgust, and everything that is hostile to what is strange, different, to welcome the migrants, to realize that what we reject, what we vomit really is ourselves. When we are afraid when writing, we hesitate in front of the difficulty of facing what we suppose to be evil. [inaudible] It’s because we have been contaminated by the restrictions, the fundamental hostilities which humans entertain towards what is for them not human as it should be, conventional. Exactly as the spider case. Why do we hate spiders? It goes on and on like that. So Kafka, of course, when he writes on The Metamorphosis, and everything he says, is from the point of view of an affirmed Jew who still belongs, and it’s most important to his time, it is the 20s of the 20th century where he’s Jewish completely. He is Jewish. What is interesting, you probably know that, this is my recent experience, I’ve read Kafka all my life in different editions, always different. It’s terrible. I realized, from the last publications, that so many pieces, so many chapters of Kafka deal with being a Jew that was completely eliminated for 80 years, as if one tried to avoid what is shameful and dangerous, he’s being so Jewish, which is not the case of Lispector. Not at all. You might read her without realizing. I think these things we also perceived because it has all kinds of consequences when you read, etc.
DN: I think so too. In that section, The School of Roots, you say that everything ends in flowers. That at the very end, the last things Lispector and Kafka wrote were about flowers, and there you write, “In the journey toward the origin in the return to roots, there is passage through the animal state, then through the vegetal state and so we move away from humankind. From the vegetal, we descend into the earth by the stem, by the root until we reach what doesn’t concern us although it exists and inscribes itself, which is of the mineral order. Perhaps flowers are our last human stage,” and in your garden lecture, when asked what your ideal garden would be, you say it would be a cemetery, but you also say a book of hospitality to all species and genres, one that would include the dead but would also include animals and vegetables in exchange with us. I just wanted that as a preface to saying I’m very grateful for the exchange that we’ve had today, Hélène. Thank you for spending this time with me together.
HC: Thank you, David. I’m really stunned by your attention and your generosity. I was impressed by your approach. It’s absolutely remarkable.
DN: Thank you, thank you. We’ve been talking today to Hélène Cixous about her latest book into English from Seagull Books, Well-Kept Ruins. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
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