Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing by Hélène Cixous
A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books
French writer and playwright Hélène Cixous at her home in Paris in August 2015. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images
If reading about writing about reading about dreaming, ad infinitum, happens to be your bag, Hélène Cixous is for you. It’s certainly mine, especially when one concludes, as Cixous does, that each is related inextricably to the other. Reading, writing and dreaming are all means to learning how to live (or, to poorly paraphrase Montaigne, learning how to die).
Cixous, as declared by Derrida, is “in my view, the greatest writer in what I call my language . . . For a great writer must be a poet-thinker, very much a poet, and very much a thinking poet”. This (in spite of what could be deemed typical vagueness on Derrida’s part) is very apt. Cixous is not for the literal thinker, the beginning-middle-end “okay, yes, but what does s/he actually mean?” reader.
To read Cixous on the mysteries of writing, much like reading poetry, a mind must go slack, must be malleable and open to suggestion, alert to the meanings between her words, just as a sleeping dog remains drowsily alert to sounds of intrusion. One must listen out for all those hard and soft noises that erupt in the dark depths of thought, the ideas already known yet unknown, suddenly revealed by the vibrancy of her own. Cixous writes free, a rare thing, especially nowadays, with all our well-taught authors, fresh from Iowa or East Anglia.
Ah, but I’ve slipped into her dream-phrasing. It’s intoxicating. How infuriating this week’s column must be to read, for those naturally repelled by such writing (the majority, according to Cixous). That’s okay, I’ll stop. I wouldn’t want to ruin your Saturday (the actual news can do that). Instead, I’ll leave you with a passage on reading, one that transported me to afternoons hidden away from tense households in childhood, and to sitting alone in cafes in my 20s:
“ . . .there is a manner of reading comparable to the act of writing – it’s an act that suppresses the world. We annihilate the world with a book . . . Reading is escaping in broad daylight, it’s the rejection of the other.”