Reading Helene Cixous’ case against writers to understand writing as martyrdom
Often one feels a sense of choking while writing, editing and editing. One doesn’t want to risk one’s reputation or interests, to be more candid. One doesn’t want to cry Emperor is naked or confess one’s own nakedness. One adds layers upon layers of ambiguity to escape censure. But we can’t escape the censure from our own conscience. Sometimes one edits out certain things to please the editor and sometimes to please the establishment or the institution one is dependent upon. Regardless of reason, the result is truth is a casualty. And we then lament why aren’t we considered really great and why today writers are no longer respected the way they once were. Writers in general are no longer playing the role of conscience of people. Often they want to be read, to be popular, to come down to the level of popular taste and readership and they don’t have courage to write on so many important things. The best ideas they keep to themselves or occasionally share in private company. They may even hide them from themselves due to cognitive dissonance or cowardice. How many tragedies have unfolded before our very eyes and the more perspicuous amongst us knew what is wrong but couldn’t say. And we have scores of excuses such as zu bacahvun farz (saving oneself is obligatory). Deep down we know we have betrayed ourselves and are guilty in the court of God or the court of conscience. Forced to resort to doublespeak in order to survive or save face, we gradually get wasted. However sometimes it is better to take stock of things and visit our ruined house and see what a disaster one has been thanks to all kinds of hypocrisies, compromises, half truths and rhetorical devices we have been resorting to for sustaining ourselves. I am reading Cixous to guide us to inspect the wrecks we have been reduced to. Perhaps one could pity oneself for the temerity to be considered a writer, a poet, a columnist. Cixous is a priest before whom one needs to confess one’s sins. Then perhaps we might be absolved or God have mercy on us. So let us see how she makes us taste something of what is believed to be the torture of taking account on the Day of Judgment (which really consists in facing the Norm inscribed in our depths, the Truth/Standard against which we evaluate others – for believers, according to one account, there is no hell as such but the pain of facing the Judge/Norm as it lays bare our refusal to bear witness to Truth).
Derrida ranked Helene Cixous with Simone Weil as two greatest women philosophers of the twentieth century. Why? Excerpts from her writings on writing and other themes will tell us.
“The only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write. The book that hurts us (we who are writing), that makes us tremble, redden, bleed.” “We should write as we dream; we should even try and write, we should all do it for ourselves, it’s very healthy, because it’s the only place where we never lie. At night we don’t lie. Now if we think that our whole lives are built on lying-they are strange buildings-we should try and write as our dreams teach us; shamelessly, fearlessly, and by facing what is inside very human being-sheer violence, disgust, terror, shit, invention, poetry. In our dreams we are criminals; we kill, and we kill with a lot of enjoyment. But we are also the happiest people on earth; we make love as we never make love in life.” “And so when you have lost everything, no more roads, no direction, no fixed signs, no ground, no thoughts able to resist other thoughts, when you are lost, beside yourself, and you continue getting lost, when you become the panicky movement of getting lost, then, that’s when, where you are unwoven weft, flesh that lets strangeness come through, defenseless being, without resistance, without batten, without skin, inundated with otherness, it’s in these breathless times that writings traverse you, songs of an unheard-of purity flow through you, addressed to no one, they well up, surge forth, from the throats of your unknown inhabitants, these are the cries that death and life hurl in their combat.”
Struggling against doubts cast on one’s dear system of belief or ideology or assumed integrity, one often resorts to repression and angry protest against those who call for re-examination of our position. Few know that faith is said to consist of faith in the unknown, in the guest, in the uncertain, in short in future or what is to come or Justice that is so near and yet so far, in experience as such, in willingness to suspend judgment or live with doubts as part of quest for what is. Faith demands nothing but sincerity on our part to bear witness against ourselves, our presumptions, our lies, our failures that follow from a true receptivity or openness to the other. Writing in the sense Cixous would advocate is a function of such faith or integrity. Writing is readiness for martyrdom of a sort with such a treasured company as that of Socrates, Suharwardi, Mansoor, Sarmad, Kafka.
Here is how Cixous illustrates such an idea: “The author of what I describe is not myself, it is the Other. First of all it is you, it is the woman, it is the queen, it is the Child, it is a person who is greater than I and who surpasses you as well, whom you do not know. I am your scribe.” “Writing or saying the truth is equivalent to death, since we cannot tell the truth. It is forbidden because it hurts everyone. We never say the truth, we must lie, mostly as a result of our two needs: our need for love and cowardice.” “Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.” “When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking.” “When there is a danger from outside, you bolt, but when the danger comes from inside, how can you bolt?”
Few are readers who read in order to read, to get undone by the other, by what was not known or attended to. Many modern Muslims, for instance, read philosophers/Sufis to refute them little noticing that it is the reader in them that has been thus refuted. The best of philosophers and mystics or writers don’t advise us, dictate us, lead us or mislead us; all they ask us is to avoid blinkers, to heed the other that seeks to write off the illusions we have harboured. The ideal of reading is to be consumed by the Word as happened to Mansoor on reading the Quran as Shaykh Nuruddin noted. Cixous writes: “Reading is not as insignificant as we claim. First we must steal the key to the library. Reading is a provocation, a rebellion: we open the book’s door, pretending it is a simple paperback cover, and in broad daylight escape! We are no longer there: this is what real reading is. If we haven’t left the room, if we haven’t gone over the wall, we’re not reading.” “When spend our lives not seeing what we saw. The picture is there: what we know when we’re small; when we are small, we know everything in a childlike way.” “Everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds.” “That is the definition of truth, it is the thing you must not say. …Where we hope we will not be afraid of understanding the incomprehensible, facing invisible, hearing the inaudible, thinking the unthinkable, which is of course: thinking.”
A pen is a gift from God that He should wield and greater the writer, emptier one becomes or more perfect is the clearing for Being. Not only art but all writing is Muse dictated. So greater the writer, tougher is the trial to bleed in the way of Love. Greater the writer, smaller the ego or the sense of being one, or anxiety to be recognized or honoured. Name any writer you know who doesn’t wish to be spared the judgment that the Pen (if it is given speech) might give against the one who holds it.
Meditating on our immense capacity of resilience and hoping against hope in concentration camps when “there is really every reason, every circumstance to be without hope,” she notes that “there still remain this triumphant feeling.” “Our true nobility: there is a resource in us, even when we are reduced, when we are crushed, when we are despised, annihilated, treated as people are treated in the camps, a resource which makes the poetic genius that is in every human being still resist. Still be capable of resisting.” “…when we write in these circumstances, it’s because we are another person, we are the other. Perhaps I am going to die: but the other remains. In this situation, it is the other who writes.” Thus she dismisses all excuses for timidity or exhaustion we are prone to invoke. The writer has to take the cross. And he emerges triumphant. God is the other on his side.