I am returning to Hélène Cixous’ astonishing book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Roots.”
“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21.
Okay, surely we have got beyond this notion of the impure, the abomination, tied up with the body and so with women (as women are apparently trapped in the body, and so abominable).
But if we haven’t? Cixous wants us to question it not by ignoring this concept of the abominable, but looking at it more closely: “I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive.”
Why do we think of such things as unclean? Why do we struggle to think of women’s bodies as something other than inherently sexualised? Why do we still call menstruation stuff “sanitary products”? Why do so many still think of homosexuality as “unnatural” or, at least, a deviation from nature?
Again, we have arrived at Cixous’ great goal: to go deep, beyond even discomfort.
And so she draws on that “chain of associations and signifiers composed of birds, women, and writing.” The Bible sets out a great list of animals that are “abominable”: unclean, not to be eaten. And so many of them are birds.
And so many laws about bodies, unclean acts, are about women.
So Cixous tells us: “If I gather these beings to talk about them in the same way, if I am worried by the fate of birds and women, it is because I have learned that not many people – unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – can really love, tolerate, or understand a certain kind of writing; I am using women and birds as synonyms.”
Birds frighten me. I shudder when I see a feather. Maybe Cixous can explain why.
“What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected, because others, the rejectors, feel something is taken away from them. But let me leave women aside for today, since this is a controversial issue, and keep only birds and writing. Neither birds not writing take anything away, yet people feel that some forms of writing do take something from us. Clarice Lispector has never been a feminist, Genet is not a feminist, though theirs are writings that may hurt, may dissatisfy, and give the feeling that something is taken away.”
Hmm. Yes. But we need more on what it means to be “abominable,” and why it is so frightening.
“That is my theme for today: to be ‘imund,’ to be unclean with joy. Immonde, that is, out of the mundus (the world). The monde, the world, that is so-called clean. The world that is on the good side of the law, that is ‘proper,’ the world of order. The moment you cross the line the law has drawn by wording, verb(aliz)ing, you are supposed to be out of the world. You no longer belong to the world.”
This is what I want from writing, and reading, after all. But birds?
“So why are those birds imund? Because. As you know, this is the secret of the law: ‘because.’ This is the law’s logic. It is this terrible ‘because,’ this senseless fatal ‘because’ that has decided people’s fate, even in the extremity of the concentration camps.”
Maybe that’s why people seem unnerved when I cannot provide an answer to the riddle of The Loud Earth. But I don’t know how.
“Writing is not put there, it does not happen out there, it does not come from outside. On the contrary, it comes from deep inside. It comes from what Genet calls the ‘nether realms,’ the inferior realms (domains inferiéurs). We’ll try to go there for a time, since this is where the treasure of writing lies, where it is formed, where it has stayed since the beginning of creation: down below.”
Is it a hell located in the body? In the way in the cultural imagination hell has always been located in women’s bodies?
“It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and it closes like a door. This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think.”
She must be getting at something beyond that patriarchal dichotomy: mind/body, which pairs up with man/woman, the first term in the binary being always superior. I guess collapsing them is scary.
Cixous traces this collapse in Lispector’s work: “Clarice effects an interior return journey, since we began as matter before moving away from whence we came. She makes a return journey to our concrete origins, though the journey is a spiritual one. The journey is spiritual because it is not enough to put one’s foot on the ground to come back to earth. It is an extremely spiritual exercise, reintegrating the earthly, the earth, and the earth’s composition in one’s body, imagination, thought. Clarice does not do this simply: she proceeds by feeling her way, by desiring; she moves blindly, since she is an explorer in the domain, methodically, making mistakes.”
For some reason the earth is more frightening than the spiritual.
“Our fear, since we know perfectly well that we will reach the dangerous point where those who are exclude live – and we hate exclusion. This is our emotional, our personal, and political problem, the fact that we can’t bear exclusion. We are afraid of it, we hate to be separated, that is why we are apt to commit all kinds of small crimes, self-denials, and treachery.”
That is why we must have a “school of roots.” We must be schooled in roots. Otherwise we sit complacent with our pretty clichés. This is where Cixous believes writing and literature can help us be brave, if only we put in the work: “Kafka insists paradise is not lost, it is there. But we are lazy and impatient. If we were neither lazy nor impatient we would be back in paradise. But we have to deal with this laziness and impatience. And of course with all the representatives of “Those Bible.” There is a whole list of institutions, media, and machines that make for the banishment of birds, women, and writing.”
She uses “Those Bible,” that strange construction, as shorthand for all those mind-numbing clichés: shopping centres, weddings, Cosmo, football stadiums, MTV, James Patterson.
That stuff is only dangerous because it distracts us from real danger. They make the banishment of the abominable seem natural. Exclusion is normalised, until we have a whole range of things deemed impure.
“So in the same line of substitutions you find: Jews, women, niggers, birds, poets, etc., all of them excluded and exiled. Exile is an uncomfortable situation, though it is also a magical situation. I am not making light of the experience of exile. But we can endure it differently. Some exiles die of rage, some transform their exile into a country. I understand those who die of (out)rage.”
I wonder how Cixous foresaw so clearly how I would write about the exile in The Loud Earth. It was excruciating writing about such a recluse. I wrote about her out of hatred, yet I had love for that hatred.
It must be a reluctance to go into hell.
Only in hindsight did I learn from Clarice Lispector’s conception of hell. This was how I had been painting the cave, the grotto, the cellar in The Loud Earth:
“And if many times I paint caves it’s because they are my submersion into the earth, dark but clouded with charity, and I, nature’s blood – extravagant and dangerous caves, Earth’s talisman, where stalactites, fossils, and stones together and where creatures crazy through their own evil nature seek refuse. Caves are my hell. Caves, dreamlike always with their mists, memory or longing? Frightening, frightening, esoteric, greenish with the ooze of time. Rats, with the crosslike wings of bats, hang glimmering in the dark cavern. I see black, hairy spiders. Rats and mice run frightened on the ground and along the walls. Among the stones the scorpion. Crabs, unchanged since prehistoric times, through countless births and deaths, would seem threatening beasts if they were human-sized. Ancient cockroaches drag themselves along in the half light. And all this am I. Everything is heavy with dreams when I paint a cave or write to you about one – out of it comes the clatter of dozens of unfettered horses to trample the shadows with dry hooves, and from the friction of the hooves the rejoicing liberates itself in sparks; here I am, the cave and I, in the time that will rot us.”
I am glad I didn’t read that before I wrote the book. It is too beautiful.
So how can we get up the courage to access this place of darkness, the roots?
“How do we cross borders? It can be done in a completely indifferent and apathetic fashion, although the person who crosses borders in an indifferent fashion never crosses borders. The person who doesn’t tremble while crossing a border doesn’t know there is a border and doesn’t cast doubt on their own definition. The person who trembles while crossing a border casts doubt on their own definition.”
Not only do we have to cross into darkness, we have to be aware that we are doing it. That can be almost excruciating.
For me this evokes José Esteban Muñoz’s embrace of doubt. Can we be lost in the darkness, amidst the roots, and find something worth finding? He thinks yes:
“Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”
Crossing borders, trembling, casting doubt on our own definition, is essentially queer. So, essentially anti-patriarchy in the radically feminist way Cixous embraces.
That is why fiction is a necessary part of the feminist project: it allows us to imagine beyond the established borders: “The immersed author necessarily comes to the point of questioning his/her limits, his/her frontiers, his/her passages, his/her alterations.”
When we are trying to feel our way back to the roots, maybe to a place we have never been physically or imaginatively, but only psychically, then we have to embrace the abominable. Even if it will never stop being impure or unclean to us.
“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, although it doesn’t hold together since we are aiming toward disassembly, toward decomposition.”
Rotting? Death? If women are thought of as closer to nature, more “bodily” than men, then our bodies must be closer to death. Is that why we have so many fearful women? Witches, poisoners, stepmothers?
Cioxus asks if “we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots.” And: “Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried. For instance, if we are in joy and in love with writing, we should try to write the imund book. The imund book deals with things, birds, and words that are forbidden by Those He.”
Let us think of “Those He” as, less impressively, the patriarchal order. Then, “from the heart where passions rise to the finger tips that hear the body thinking: this is where the Book (Alive)-to-Live (le livre Vivre) springs from…”
Cixous asks us to radically collapse that ultimate patriarchal construction: mind vs body. It is something we have to keep at the forefront of our heads and our fingers, because it has made us what we are. We have to undermine it self-consciously.
“We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth. Humble work. Without reward. Except joy.”