What would you ask Hélène Cixous, if you had the chance?
I am reading Cixous, and writing my-self. My research program is also very much about being here in France, in the French university system (via Paris 8), immersed in language and culture. And attending Cixous’ monthly seminar, with an opportunity to speak with her, maybe even to discuss, clarify and dialogue.
But what question do I ask?
I have many, many things I am curious about. Cixous’ idea of “lirécrire” – “readwrite,” alongside my idea of midwifing texts. Cixous’ sense of Michel de Montaigne’s tower as an eternal tree and a mother-tower of France, as both a prison and a tree, as a source of writing itself. Her saying that, 'art has to do with being a prisoner,' and 'to evade.' Her ideas related to the corpus of her mother-texts, and the relationship between ‘mother’ and writing. Her notion that “telepathy” is the next step from empathy, in the sending and receiving of messages.
What question to ask?
I have been thinking about the very old story of Parsifal a.k.a. Perceval, originating in Celtic mythology. “Parsifal” is the composer Wagner’s spelling of this name in his opera version of the story. Parsifal meaning “pure fool.” Perceval is a wandering Knight of the Round Table, in search of the Holy Grail. As a hero, he must pass the test, and ask the right question of the Fisher King (the Wounded King) at the Grail Castle. The land has become barren due to the Grail King’s un-healing wound. Having arrived after many trials at the Castle, and sitting at the King’s grande table, Perceval is given a feast. All sumptuous dishes of food and riches arrive. Before each course, a procession with a bleeding lance and a grail are paraded before him. Yet Perceval remains silent, not asking the question that would heal the King and save the kingdom. He does not speak out of politeness. He must then quest for many more years, finally realizing that his failure to speak has caused the King’s wound to go unhealed. The Grail itself had been paraded before him. He returns to the Castle to ask the healing question.
It’s a lot to think that a question can heal (rather then an answer). Qualitative research can be something like this, beginning with a question, and often ending with more.
Here now, with Cixous, it’s like I don’t know the question to ask. What is my question of the Grail? Time is running out. The feast is being paraded before me, and there are only so many trans-Atlantic/Arctic fights I can make. It’s a long way to go and not ask the question. Despite bravado in travel and being here in my quest, I can be very shy and polite, not wanting to bother people.
Today, in her seminar, Hélène Cixous spoke of two places, Osnabruck (Germany) and Jerusalem (Israel). She drew a map to show us the location of Osnabruck with its North-west location in Germany, and its relation to other countries of Europe. It was a founded by Charlemagne, King of the Franks. A once small town, it is now a cosmopolitan city. Cixous mentioned memorial plaques, all over her grandmother and mother’s birthplace of Osnabruck, whose Jewish population was decimated during WWII. This is common to many German cities, memorializing the horrors of the Holocaust through plaques that mark key sites of activity, lest we forget.
Cixous spoke of the surrealist painter artist Felix Naussbaum, who was born in Osnabruck. A German-Jew, he was studying in Rome when the Nazis took power in Germany. Naussbaum quickly realized he had to leave the academy and flee the Nazi view of Aryan life and art. He and his wife spent the next ten years in exile, hiding in Belgium. He painted images depicting the fear and darkness of living through the Nazi reign of terror. They were eventually discovered in their hidden attic, and killed at Auschwitz. His whole family, mother, father, brother, sister-in-law, died in the death camps.
Cixous noted how such memorial plaques have not been done in France, and why not? It’s a practice for the living to know the deaths we have come from, in order to create a society of peace. A continuing theme I am learning in Cixous’ current seminar is questioning all zones of exclusion, and the ways in which peoples are severed from each other, at worst through violence and death of the other. We can think of this worldwide in obvious ways. Cixous pondered the conditions of Israel and Palestine, the defining sense of being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ at work in modern Israel.
Last week, I bore my own quiet witness to the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland. I was often on the verge of tears, in the relief of finally going ‘home.’ But something else too. Feeling the lives of my relatives (and all) in this place I feared to go with my grandparents as a child in the 1970s, with its sectarian violence.
And so, what is the healing question? To inquire into, and remember the wound.