This article is part of a folio on Hélène Cixous. Click here to read the rest of the folio.
Often, when I read Hélène Cixous, something within me—what? or who?—cries out: I too I too I too. I too have a German Jewish mother (born the same year as Hélène) and an Arab Jewish father. Her father was born in Oran, Algeria; mine in Fès, Morocco—just a few hours’ drive before they closed off the border. Her mother’s mother was born in Osnabrück, Germany; mine in Hanover, in the very same district. In so many of Hélène’s accounts, offered in fragments throughout her oeuvre, there is so much I recognize.
Yet there is much in what she describes that I don’t—though perhaps I wish I did. Whatever cries out I too also says, It is different for me. This I too machine is always part of the process of reading, the book and its reader locked in a dynamic experience of convergence and divergence, understanding and misunderstanding; who was it who wrote that as much as we read the book, we are read by it? But the I too machine does not represent the full work of language; for that, it must meet a second machine. The multi-genre artist Laurie Anderson, who might be a younger sister of Hélène’s, helps me understand the nature of this other machine, and of reading-writing, in her song-poem “White Lily.” In her distinctively understated croon, Anderson renders a scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film series Berlin Alexanderplatz:
The one-armed man walks into a flower shop
What flower expresses,
Days go by
And they just keep going by endlessly
Pulling you into the future?
Days go by endlessly
Endlessly pulling you
Into the future?
And the florist says:
In this perplexing act of translation, what is at stake is not correspondence, but a more complicated process of embrace and disavowal. As she moves from German to English, from film to poem, Anderson tenderly and humorously exposes the arbitrariness and insufficiency of symbols alongside our passionate investment in them. To me these lines suggest that writing is a kind of What flower expresses machine, which processes the material of life into signs that, like the white lily, open out from the concrete into the inexpressible.
Jo Mrelli is a poet and Joelle Marelli is a translator, an independent scholar, and the former head of progamme at the Collège international de philosophie in Paris. They bravely resist the temptation to exchange their places.
aracelis girmay is a poet who works across genres. In 2018, girmay was a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
Sarah Hammerschlag is the John Nuveen Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her most recent book, co-authored
with Constance Furey and Amy Hollywood, is Devotion: Three Inquiries in Religion, Literature, and Political Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2021).
Jules Gill-Peterson is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child, a general co-editor at Transgender Studies Quarterly, and an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.