Oh, it was wonderful. Here I am sick, weak with flu, reading through some of the recently purchased books that I have not had time to get to. I really am a crazy person who does not know when to stop and rest. I am reading books that I might teach from next semester. About writing. About politics. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or DeLillo’s Mao II may be on the reading list for my composition students, as well as Unspeak and Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death. As usual, I feel genuinely excited to be moving to a new syllabus.
What has motivated me at last to post here again, though, is a book that I have started reading for possible use in the Intro to Creative Writing class that I will be teaching in the Spring: Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, a translation of lectures delivered at the University of California, Irvine in May of 1990. I have not been so moved by a piece of writing for what seems like a long time now, perhaps since I read Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles or Waiting for the Barbarians two Springs ago. (Both of which deal with torture and exile; I wonder if this is important.) I have been considering the importance of theory and philosophy to the practice of writing. In a time of creative writing programs that too often focus single-mindedly on craft (an important and necessary subject, undoubtedly), I think it is important to take time and discover the great ideas that are out there, shaping (or perhaps simply elucidating, or a bit of both, possibly?) our understanding and experience of the contemporary world. I have started with Cixous, and I am very happy that I have chosen so. I have been looking for a particularly moving passage, but it is difficult. It is hard to take any passage out of Cixous’s sprawling, intricate, and mysterious contexts, without having it lose some of its power. But I will try my best.
Referencing a letter of Kafka’s to a friend she writes:
I too believe that we should only read those books that “wound” us and “stab” us, “wake us up with a blow on the head” or strike us like terrible events, that do and don’t do us good, a book “like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves,” or that is “like being banished into forests far from everyone,” or books that are “like a suicide.” Or, as he says at the end, a book “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
That is what I believe but it also saddens me because very few books are axes, very few books hurt us, very few books break the frozen sea. Those books that do break the frozen sea and kill us are the books that give us joy. Why are such books so rare? Because those who write the books that hurt us also suffer, also undergo a sort of suicide, also get lost in forests–-and this is frightening. (17-18)
Now, as an aspiring writer and a concerned member of society, I am asking myself, what is the frozen sea of this culture? In this moment? What are the frozen seas of the world? Sure, a real frozen sea is melting, breaking up now due to the oblivious, careless hunger of civilizations; but there are other things frozen in us (in America particularly, this our world’s current empire): we freeze in the boredom that follows excessive, insistent productivity; in the loss of sensitivity to the events around us, in numbness towards the sufferings of other people(s); we are frozen in the sanctified act of consumption, in the weakness of reason over media/gov’t-induced fear, and the impotence brought through the extremities of action/reaction that seem the only acceptable responses to the world–one must be either for or against, a good party member or a member of the opposition, mainstream or avant-garde–-as if reality offered no other alternatives. As if
discussion, no, rational thought, cannot exist beyond these imposed dualities. Where are the axes that will break through? Who will wield them? Who can learn to be so fearless? And how many times must s/he swing before it starts to crack?
But there is more to consider than this: to become fixated only in the external is to be blind to the other “half” of ones being (as if such things were quantifiable). As Cixous points out, and as the Buddhists point out too, the place that most needs the axe is inside of ourselves. So my questions now become, how can I be fearless? Where in my back should the axe best go?
I will close with Cixous’s words on “‘the truth,'” a term she uses so carefully, “to protect it from any form of fixation or conceptualization” (6). I hope that the passage below is complete enough an exerpt to be moving. As is standard with what else I have read of her, she does not try to make things seem easy; if what she thinks is needed is the impossible or the unspeakable, she will ask for that. For this, I believe she is truly fearless.
I will talk about truth again, without which (without the word truth, without the mystery truth) there would be no writing. It is what writing wants. But it “(the truth)” is totally down below and a long way off. And all the people I love and whom I have mentioned are beings who are bent on directing their writing toward this truth-over-there, with unbelievable labor; they are fighting against the elements and principally against the innumerable immediate exterior and interior enemies. The exterior is very powerful at the present time. We are living particles, fireflies in the world, and around us resounds an enormous concert of noise-and-rumor-producing machines, creating a din and rumors destined to ensure we don’t hear the voice of truth. But the interior enemies are just as numerous. It concerns our fear: this is what we are made of: our weakness. Kafka told us paradise is not lost. We are the ones who haven’t yet regained it, and if we haven’t regained it, it’s because we are suffering from two vices: laziness and impatience. As a result, we do nothing and don’t advance, we stop out of laziness, hurry from impatience. Between the two, the work of descending [toward truth] isn’t accomplished. Paradise is down below. (6)