The essay as forms of rewriting: Cixous to Montaigne1

By Mireille Calle-Gruber
Translated by Caroline Rabourdin

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

Ecclesiastes KJV I, 9-10

¶ 1Writing, is always plus-d’une, plus-d’unone-more, more than onemore than one voice, more than one language. Every writer knows from experience that there is no creation ex nihilo but a book, a book running from page to page, accompanied by books from her-others-in-literature; a text, summoned by other texts, sustained by readings from the library, a space for one’s own interpretations. Art is drawn to art, inscribed in genealogies of forms at work. Advancing by perceptual affinities. Stories of lived experience, or rather memories of lived experience, by way of other people’s stories, in turn decipher, scrutinize, augment those memories, as so many echoing sound boxes and places of discovery.

¶ 2Hélène Cixous, who works fundamentally through rewriting – I mean that her site, her soil, are the treasures found in books-other; hence, the recent narrative of Manhattan: Lettres de la préhistoire2, in which the main character is the Library, is in fact an immense allegory of the writer’s Travels3 – Cixous who works by displacement, compression, expansion (in which we also recognise Freud’s analytical process), has turned rewriting, among other things, into a true motif. Rewriting becomes the leitmotiv of the generative process in literature. This, we will see, has consequences for the singular tone and unclassifiable genre of her narratives.

¶ 3Before exploring some of the modalities of this approach, let us recall Hélène Cixous’ claim of ‘elective kinship’ with those writers, female and male, who speak different languages but with accents akin, with those writers, haunted by the Poem, the poetic differential.

¶ 4Ce qui me lie à ma parenté élective, qui me tient dans l’attirance de mes guides spirituels, ce n’est pas la question du style ni des métaphores, c’est ce à quoi ils pensent sans arrêt, l’idée du feu, sur laquelle nous gardons un silence complice, afin de ne pas cesser d’y penser. Aucune complaisance. Seulement l’aveu de la peur du feu. Et la compulsion d’affronter la peur.What binds me to my elective kinship, what keeps me in the magnetic attraction of my spiritual guides, is not a question of style or metaphors, it is instead what they are constantly thinking about: the idea of fire, over which we maintain a collusive silence, so that we never stop thinking about it. No complacency. Only the confession of the fear of fire. And the compulsion to face the fear.4Prenowitz [+] : Hélène Cixous, in Mireille Calle-Gruber and Hélène Cixous, Hélène Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, trans, Eric Prenowitz (Routledge, 1997), 26. [–] What ties me to my elective relatives, what holds me in the lure of my spiritual guides, is not the question of style, or of metaphors, it is what they think about incessantly, the idea of fire, over which we maintain a stealthy silence, so as not to stop thinking about it. No complacency. Only the admitting of the fear of fire. And the compulsion to confront the fear.5

¶ 5Between them, it is, then, a question of desire, of energetic impulse, whereby writing ‘the idea of fire’ means, in every sense, passer l’épreuve: de la consumation des forces, du dépot des traces, de l’épureto put to the test, or to the proof: of forces consumed, of laying down traces, of proofingto put to the test: of forces consumed, of laying down traces, of trial and error. From the outset, the work itself becomes excessive, promethean, movement of transmission, caught in the legacy of the passion for reading and writing. Overflowing and over-flowed, such is the advent of writing.

¶ 6Without Shakespeare with Poe, at first, and immediately without Homer, without: The Old Testament, Kleist, Kafka, Dostoyevsky and later without: Clarice Lispector, Marina Tsvetaeva with Anna Akhmatova, without Thomas Bernhard with Ingeborg Bachmann, without Nelly Sachs and… I could not have lived.6

¶ 7This rapport made of debt and gratitude, where the text’s threads are woven and the language of thought enters, places literature under the sign of rewriting, maintaining it at the constantly renewed moment of the birth of writing: where rewriting appears as the means to holding oneself, relentlessly, at the beginnings. ‘I want books to be repugnant still, swept away by the winds, fire catches on all sides…’7. Conceived in this way, rewriting delivers an injunction: writing is urgency, risk, emulation; the work takes place in an interstellar and interliterary space with ‘books for stars’8 and it functions by power of attraction. Counting on rewriting, here, means fulfilling the genealogical and generative forces of literature.

¶ 8Why amongst them all – apart from the companionships named by Hélène Cixous in L’ange au secret (supra), apart from the fact that, as we know, Le troisième corps9 is a rewriting of Freud and Kleist10, that Les commencements11 would not exist without Klee and Uccello, Or: Les lettres de mon père12 without Kafka's letters, nor Manhattan without Kafka’s Amerika, nor Les rêveries de la femme sauvage13 without Rousseau, nor… nor… etc. – amongst them all, why have I chosen to talk here about Cixous’s attelage
also appears in ¶ 11
conjunctioncompanionship with Montaigne on her writing journey? Perhaps because he is the most constant and probably the most frequently cited:

¶ 9« Au moins (disait Montaigne mon tiers le plus antique et le plus nécessaire) devroit notre condition fautière nous faire porter plus modérément et retenuement en nos changements. »
En vérité si nous n’étions pas toujours à oublier à quel point nous sommes fautiers, nous ne serions pas si couramment « faux tiers ». J’aime mon tiers à la folie et chacun de ses mots également. Parce qu’il n’est pas un seul mot de lui qui ne remue cinq cents fois en même temps : dis « fautière », tu entendras : faut tiers, faux tiers, faute hier, faut hier, faux témoin, vrai témoin, faut faux, faux faute, faux hier vrai demain… C’est pour cela que ce mot nous enchante.
‘At least (said Montaigne, my third party [tiers], the oldest and most necessary), our faulty [fautière] condition ought to make us behave with more restraint and moderation in our actions.’

In truth, if we weren’t always busy forgetting how much we were at fault, we would not so frequently be a ‘false third party’ [faux tiers]. I am madly in love with my third party [tiers] and with his each and every word equally. Because there is not a single of his words that doesn’t stir five hundred times at once: say ‘fautière’ and you will hear: foe tier, foe tee air, fault tiara, faux tee, faux foe, faulty tea, faux tea are, faux pas… this is why this word is so delightful.14
Prenowitz [+] : Hélène Cixous, in Mireille Calle-Gruber and Hélène Cixous, Hélène Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, trans. Eric Prenowitz (London: Routledge, 1997), 15. [–] ‘At least (said Montaigne, my most ancient and necessary third party), our faulty condition ought to make us behave with more moderation and restraint in our changes.’

If we were not always busy forgetting to what extent we are faulty [fautières], we would not so commonly be a ‘false third party’ [faux tiers]. I am madly in love with my third party and with each of his words equally. Because there is not a single word of him that does not shift five hundred times at once: say ‘fautière’ you will hear: faut tiers, faux tiers, faute hier, faut hier, faux témoin, vrai témoin, faut faux, faux faute, false yesterday, true tomorrow… this is why we are enchanted with this word.15

¶ 10It matters to highlight in these notes that rewriting placed under the sign of Montaigne is, for Cixous, neither about une affaire de double
also appears in ¶ 19, 43, 58
doublingduplication, nor about identification, but about a du tiers
also appears in ¶ 43, 58
third partythird person, the element of reflection at a distance, of freedom in spacing (the splicing of signifiers is significant here), working along the lines, where the words of the other-in-literature act as a ‘billiard cushion’, bouncing language back at new angles. In a more symbolic way, the commonplace is a place by default: it is the ‘faulty condition’ that is the human condition. Rewriting thus affirms itself as energiser de la faute et de l’écartof fault and of distancingof error and of spacing. And literature and philosophy are in step.

¶ 11But there is more. I have chosen the attelage
also appears in ¶ 8
conjunctioncompanionship with Montaigne because he gives the congenial form of writing encounters [co-naissances], re-births and new beginnings: that is to say the essay, this genre-defying form able to embrace them all, and some aesthetic and ethical issues, which for Montaigne, are associated with this practice.

¶ 12

On temptation: stealing from Montaigne the fire of exercitation

¶ 13Rather than a literary category, essai, in the 16th century, designates a methodology, an intellectual journey: the experience of the self through reflection, ‘oneself’ ‘always learning and making trial’16. Thereby, essaying oneself [s’essayer] is the opposite of resolving oneself: ‘could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve.’ (III, 2)

¶ 14This shows how for Montaigne, essai should be conceived of with all its weight of synonyms (essai, from the Latin exagium, is above all: weighing, weight). Its semantic spectrum is large: exercise, prelude, trial, attempt, temptation; but also: taking risks, weighing, assessing, undertaking, taking a leap. ‘Essai’ therefore does not mean a recorded result, but ‘a process in writing’17; it aims at ‘be-longing to oneself’ [être à soi], ‘re-gaining oneself’ [se r’avoir de soi] and ‘knowing oneself’ [s’avoir] (‘On solitude’, I, 39). It is a ‘trial’ [essai de jugement] which calls for a hesitant passivity: ‘though it happen to be a subject I do not very well understand, I try, […] I keep me on the shore’18 (I, 50), and this trial of the unknown is a trial of oneself aimed at discovering one’s strength and one’s weakness, one’s ‘natural parts’ says Montaigne, ‘of which this is the essay’ (I, 25).

¶ 15Such are the forms of the formless, of writing genesis that Hélène Cixous in turn adopts, up until the detail of labour in the language: hence Savoir19, a story of the eye’s impairment and powers-other generated by myopia, then non-myopia, thereafter experiencing the feeling of alterity to oneself – following Montaigne’s example – Savoir, ‘to know’, replays the varying degrees of seeing oneself [s’avoir], through the view [le voir], view it [ça voir], non-view [non-voir], not-non-view [ne-pas-non-voir]. The stance of the ‘oblique glance’ (III, 9) and the wandering of style and wit20, or the stance of wit thanks to style, allow Cixous as heir to Montaigne, to paint all the various stages of the being unwittingly, and in so doing to resort to ‘poetic pace’, ‘variegation’, ‘nuances’, as Montaigne writes, in short, to resort to literature as revealing agent: ‘I chiefly paint my thoughts, a subject void of form and incapable of operative production; ‘tis all that I can do to couch it in this airy body of the voice’ (II, 6). To resort, in other words, to the œuvre-becoming, its construction, its germinations, its attempts. Montaigne: ‘In fine, all this hodge-podge […] is nothing but a register of the essays of my own life’ (III, 13); and Cixous then rephrases by insisting that the ‘novel should [not] forget its rubble’21.

¶ 16There is another word, synonymous with essai, that Montaigne is particularly fond of and designates the very principle of generative writing: exercitation, which gives the title of chapter 6 of the Second Book of his Essais, and a major lesson for Hélène Cixous as she explores the spectres of the being, its absences, its fears, the lives and deaths that make up the journey of a lifetime. We ought to take a moment and read the Essais in order to grasp what is really at stake in re-writing.

¶ 17We remember, De l’exercitation strives to ‘get acquainted with death’ ‘by approaching it’ (II, 6). In these pages Montaigne reflects on his falling off a horse and losing consciousness. Yet, writing now becomes an echo chamber for his unconscious conditions. A whole lexical and syntactic range thus operates the passage to the spectre of the subject-of-writing, revealing its ‘dry anatomy’: ‘I expose myself entire; ‘tis a body where., as one view, the veins, muscles, and tendons are apparent, every of them in its proper place’ (II, 6).

¶ 18Giving some time to the spectacle of our suffering and no particular order other than a ‘pace so rambling and uncertain, as that of the soul’ (II, 6), the essay fait des captations inouïes
also appears in ¶ 19
makes unimaginable discoveriesmakes unheard of discoveriescaptures the unimaginable. For instance, as in Montaigne’s magnificent phrases: ‘the motion [délogement] of the soul’ (II, 6), ‘the many motions in us that do not proceed from our direction’ (II, 6), ‘those passions which only touch the outward bark of us’ (II,6). And we did not know that we were endowed with ‘a perplexed and uncertain hearing which seems but to touch upon the borders of the soul’ (II, 6), with ‘so perplexed, so weak and dead a sight’ (II, 6). Here hangs life when it hangs ‘but just upon my, lips’ (II, 6); here, the ability to ‘perceive, as in a dream’(II, 6).

¶ 19More: in the story of this testimony of thought that strives to penetrate ‘the dark profundities of its intricate internal windings’ (II, 6), to say ‘nuement
also appears in ¶ 21, 23
bare(ly)nakedly by words’ (II, 6, brackets my own), is the concern not to forget the forgetting of the accident, to pay attention to ‘the memory [beginning] to return’ (II, 6), and to the inouï
also appears in ¶ 18
unthinkableunheard of risk of ‘once more dying again, but a more painful death’ (II, 6). Oxymoron, paradox, contradiction: as many figures of trouble, du double
also appears in ¶ 10, 43, 58
doublingduplication, and double belonging. The description of the syncope
also appears in ¶ 23, 25
syncope blackout by Montaigne is a poetic masterpiece:

¶ 20Je ne savais pourtant ni d’où je venais ni où j’allais ; ni ne pouvais peser et considérer ce qu’on me demandait : ce sont des légers effets que les sens produisaient d’eux-mêmes, comme d’un usage ; ce que l’âme y prêtait, c’était en songe, touchée bien légèrement, et comme léchée seulement et arrosée par la molle impression des sens. (II, 6)Yet I did not know where I came from, nor where I was going; nor could I weigh and consider what I was being asked: they were gentle effects produced by the senses themselves, as per usage; what the soul made of it was in reverie, touched ever so lightly, and as if only licked and moistened by the soft impression of the senses. (II, 6)I knew not for all that, whence I came or whither I went, neither was I capable to weigh and consider what was said to me: these were light effects, that the senses produced of themselves as of custom; what the soul contributed was in a dream, lightly touched, licked and bedewed by the soft impression of the senses. (II, 6)

¶ 21Hélène Cixous writes under this banner, now in the language of Montaigne himself, regardant « nuement » le « monde nu » à « l’œil nu »
also appears in ¶ 19, 23
‘barely’ seeing the ‘bare world’ though ‘bared eyes’‘nakedly’ seeing the ‘world nude’ through ‘naked eyes’, in order to paint ‘internal events, caught at birth, at the source’22, now by translations:

¶ 22Ce voir, je ne puis l’atteindre qu’à l’aide de l’écriture poétique. “Voir” le monde nu, c’est-à-dire presque é-nu-mérer le monde, je m’y applique avec l’oeil nu, obstiné, sans défense, de ma myopie.I can only attain this mode of seeing with the aid of poetic writing. I apply myself to ‘seeing’ the world bare, that is barely seeing the world, with the bared, stubborn, defenceless eye of my near-sightedness.23Prenowitz [+] : Hélène Cixous, in Mireille Calle-Gruber and Hélène Cixous, Hélène Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, trans. Eric Prenowitz (London: Routledge, 1997), 3. [–] I can only attain this mode of seeing with the aid of poetic writing. I apply myself to ‘seeing’ the world nude, that is, almost e-nu-merating the world, with the naked, obstinate, defenceless eye of my near-sightedness.24

¶ 23This is how she brings her spectres and revenants to the page: nous rencontrons autrement dans l’autre monde, plus nuement
also appears in ¶ 19, 21
‘we meet otherwise in the other world, more bare(ly)’‘we meet otherwise in the other world, more nakedly’25; expecting writing to venture to the unknown: ‘Ghost that I am, I take phantom photos of ghosts’26, turning the book into a book of revenants: ‘Oh if we could die more than once. She would have easily made a round-trip.’27 ‘Revenance’ and ‘Departance’ are the names of the many-dyings in Hélène Cixous, who professes, like Montaigne, to write in reverie, between waking and sleeping [veille et sommeil] (as in the syncope
also appears in ¶ 19, 25
syncopeblackout in the book, the ‘“Venant” non venu’, at the start of Les Rêveries de la femme sauvage), to write beyond writing, never ceasing to not write. It’s in the same fabric of language – and craft – that Cixous claims the energising effect of spelling mistakes: ‘I make my mistakes on purpose. Whoever doesn’t hate them, follow me’28, that are the play of the signifier, just as Montaigne claims to write ‘by right and by pretence’29 (III, 5) and to ‘fix the attention of [his] reader by the weight of what [he] writes […] by [his] intricacies’ (III,9).

¶ 24More: it was Montaigne himself who gave the metaphor of the oeuvre at work to Cixous, when he states: ‘Yet, might I have my choice, I think I should rather choose to die on horseback than in bed’ (III,9). When she paints Rembrandt, and in doing so paints herself, Cixous follows exactly the allegorical posture of exercitation: ‘One day I’ll end up painting astride my own corpse.’30 And it is indeed on the back of other texts that she depicts herself writing, and astride her own corpse that she arrives at accidents of verbal conjugation through collisions and syncope. As in this one in Or: les lettres de mon père, written with Kafka’s letters: […] entre les dates, je fus née, je naquis
also appears in ¶ 25
‘[…] between the dates, I had born, I was being born’‘[…] between the dates, I was born, I am born’.31

¶ 25And so in Or, the book of the returning father post-mortem, the story of the nearly-born-un-born unfolds along the scheme of the faillir-mourir-ne-pas-mourirnearly-dead-not-deadnearly-dying-not-dying of Montaigne’s exercitation. By weaving the post-mortem motif and the un-born motif, coming into existence relies upon a passage between two pasts, past perfect and simple past – not so simple and not so past. By establishing the beat of an unnamed interval (je fus né/je naquis
also appears in ¶ 24
I had born/I was being born I was born/I am born), the narrative thereafter goes into syncope, sounding its many folds, moments, differences, giving extent and duration to what we believe to be without: ‘[…] I was about, with the possibility of being born at a later date, not to exist ever. My brother knew not to be born either. The marriage wasn’t taking place.’32 Astride the dead body of her birth, projected, rejected, disowned (by the fiancé threatened with tuberculosis), the narrator tells the story of the still-born (I was being born) and of the new-born – the re-newly born – the born-again forever. And now, what is usually considered to be loss of consciousness, syncope
also appears in ¶ 19, 23
syncopepassing-out, non-being, once sifted through the different writing tenses, constitutes the silvering of a singular mirror revealing the anatomy of a body prone to syncope
also appears in ¶ 19, 23

¶ 26For Montaigne notes with great acuity:

¶ 27Car montaigne le note avec acuité : nos souffrances ont besoin de temps, qui est si court et si précipité en la mort qu’il faut nécessairement qu’elle soit insensible. Ce sont les approches que nous avons à craindre ; et celles-là peuvent tomber en expérience.
Plusieurs choses nous semblent plus grandes par imagination que par effet.
Cotton [+] : Michel de Montaigne, Essays of Michel de Montaigne, trans. Charles Cotton (Project Gutenberg: 2006), 736. [–] Our sufferings require time, which in death is so short, and so precipitous, that it must necessarily be insensible. They are the approaches that we are to fear, and these may fall within the limits of experience.

Many things seem greater by imagination than they are in effect. (II, 6)33
Our pains need time, what is so short and hurried in death must necessarily be imperceptible. We should fear the approaches; and these dissolve into experience.

Many things appear larger to us in the imagining than in the effect. (II, 6)34

¶ 28And what Montaigne has constantly applied in his scenes, where ‘For want of natural memory, [he] makes one of paper’ (III, 13) – because, says Montaigne ‘my trade and art is to live’ (II, 6) and confesses without restraint: ‘[…] I am perpetually tricking myself out, for I am eternally upon my own description’ (II, 6) –, Hélène Cixous, in Montaigne’s footsteps, makes a principle for capturing the ‘living reality, never repressed’:

¶ 29Prenowitz [+] : Hélène Cixous, in Mireille Calle-Gruber and Hélène Cixous, Hélène Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, trans. Eric Prenowitz (London: Routledge,1997), 48. [–] This is what writing tries to do: to keep the record of these invisible events – one would hear the rumour of a great number of messages that are expressed in other ways. The glances, the tension in the body, the continuities, the discontinuities, this vast material which at times carries signs that contradict the message contained in the dialogue properly speaking. It is the art of writing or rather the art of theatre to know how to make this appear, at sentence-corners, with silences, with mute words; all that will not have been pronounced but will have been expressed with means other than speech – and that can be taken up in the web of writing.35

¶ 30Rewriting without cutting off one’s nose

¶ 31One should follow with great care the detail of proximities and distances unevenly at play in rewriting. I will only highlight, here, a single case of long distance transportation of one of Montaigne’s words by Hélène Cixous. From De l’exercitation again, it is the verb ‘énaser’, which, in its modern translation into French ‘cutting off one’s nose’ and in the Cixousian context, becomes representative of a relationship to writing which is neither one of submission, nor one of reduction.

¶ 32In order to defend himself against the accusations of gasconade generally attached to autobiographical writing, Montaigne discovers the word ‘énaser’ – I say ‘discovery’ because it is indeed a trope.

¶ 33Custom has made all speaking of a man’s self vicious, and positively interdicts it, in hatred to the boasting that seems inseparable from the testimony men give of themselves. [...]

¶ 34Instead of blowing the child’s nose, this is to take his nose off altogether. (II, 6)

¶ 35Reviving the energy of the metaphor, a quotation from Horace’s Ars Poetica: ‘Fear of the fault leads to vice’, underlines a determination which for Montaigne relies altogether on poetic and ethical choice: the form of the essay requires talking-about-oneself without restraint, that is without complacency or embellishment. This is the price to pay for the essay to become a virtuous form of writing. This requires a rewriting manoeuvre [tour de réécriture] because, by transposing the Latin proverb into everyday language, Montaigne revives the metaphorical charge by displacing the fixed image [‘moucher l’enfant’ or blowing the child’s nose] towards the hyperbole ‘énaser’.

¶ 36In Le jour où je n’étais pas là, Hélène Cixous repeats the gesture: this time Montaigne gives her not ‘the word’ (as with ‘nuement’ for instance) but the power of dispersion and displacement that the word entails – which will enable her to scatter seeds differently and weave the appropriate writing toilecanvas web.

¶ 37Under the motif of the ‘un-born’, now on the variation of ‘the being born without yet being born’ [‘l’être né sans être encore né’] describing the child with Down Syndrome, a new section unfolds titled ‘UN NOUVEAU NEZ?’ [‘A NOSE NEWBORN?’]

¶ 38« Fais-toi couper le nez » dit ma mère […]. Et je faillis. Et j’ai failli. Je venais d’avoir quatorze ans et je traduisis mon nez en chose à couper, en élément honteux […].
Finalement j’épargnai mon nez que j’aurais bien voulu couper, mais je n’osai pas, car un nez coupé ne repousse jamais […] ce nez-là, mon héritage, mon père, je ne veux pas m’en séparer, le spectre de mon père me hantait […].
‘Have your nose cut (off)’ said my mother […]. And I nearly. And I failed. I had just turned fourteen and I interpreted my nose as something to be cut off, a shameful thing […].
In the end I spared the nose I would have liked to cut off, but did not dare, for a nose cut off never grows back […] this nose of mine, my heritage, my father, I do not want to part from, the ghost of my father was haunting me […].36
Brahic [+] : Hélène Cixous, The Day I wasn’t There, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 36. [–] ‘Get a nose job,’ said matter-of-fact mother […]. And I nearly. And I failed. I had just turned fourteen and I translated my nose into a thing for cutting, a thing of shame […].
Finally I spared my nose that I really should have liked to cut off, but I didn’t dare, for a cut nose doesn’t ever grow back again […] that nose there, my inheritance, my father, I don’t want to part with it, my father’s ghost haunted me […].37

¶ 39Through word play – nouveau-né/nouveau nez (new-born/nose newborn) – and signifying meanderings – faux nez/faux né (false nose/false newborn) –truths alight on the page, or rather terrible vices alight. Because to cut off or not-to-cut-off-the-nose becomes the emblematic question of Antisemitism (‘den Nasenjosef’, ‘le Josef-des-nez’, ‘the Joseph-of-noses’) of ethnic cleansing and Nazi genetics, of the euthanasia of children with Down Syndrome, of three-legged dogs… Everything depends on the weaving, thread after thread, of writing.

¶ 40And all things considered, this ‘nose question’ also points to the question of rewriting. For if Montaigne’s text is an alt-text active substratum although not mentioned, guiding and working Cixous’s linguistic weave, reference to it is only deferred, some forty pages later, and comes in, repressed and returned, in another scene from the ‘Jewish narrative’:

¶ 41—Béni soit montaigne qui ne pouvait supporter de voir égorger une poule !
—Ça m’étonnerait qu’il ne l’ait pas mangée quand même, closse ma mère. [...]
—Chez les juifs la poule ne souffre pas. Ma mère ment.
Brahic [+] : Hélène Cixous, The Day I wasn’t There trans. Beverley Bie Brahic (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 56-57. [–] —Bless Montaigne who could not bear to see a chicken slaughtered!
—I bet he ate it all the same my mother clucks. […]
—Jews’ chicken don’t suffer. My mother lies and believes what she says.38
—Blessed be Montaigne who could not bear the sight of a hen being slaughtered!
—I’d be surprised if he didn’t eat it anyway, retorts my mother. […]
—With the Jews the hen does not suffer. My mother lies and believes what she says.39

¶ 42What Hélène Cixous reclaims through this deferring device of said-and-non-said: whilst it is important to learn from the genius of earlier oeuvres when rewriting, it is no less important to retain one’s own nose, in other words to print the textual weave with one’s own composition and completion. Rewriting, but without ‘cutting one’s nose off’ [‘s’énaser’].

¶ 43As a consequence, it is a matter of taking a double genealogy into account: the genealogy of one’s others-in-literature as summoned by Hélène Cixous – and Montaigne also, modestly, writing that he need only ‘turn his eye upward toward past ages, and his pride will be abated, when he shall there find so many thousand wits that trample under foot’ (II, 6); the genealogy of her families and her story (Cixous: ‘I was afraid of cutting myself off my father’40). After all, the point is to rewrite en tiers sujet
also appears in ¶ 10, 58
as a third party subjectin the third person and not in the identification of the double
also appears in ¶ 10, 19, 58

¶ 44A Pythian alphabet

¶ 45We therefore observe: Hélène Cixous does not use quotations; nor does she counterfeit or imitate Montaigne. She takes. She takes through Montaigne – who is a place, who takes place as a proper name. Montaigne who is a Library-Tower [Tour-Librairie] full of literary tricks [tours d’écriture].

¶ 46Cixous undoes Montaigne. She undoes the language to turn it into the Pythian alphabet of her idiom as a writer.41

¶ 47We understand, then, that she prefers ‘Stendhal and Lispector’s “non-novels”’, the newspapers, letters and notebooks which are as many spaces of ‘exercitation’42, in some way the writings of dispossession, and easier to unpack than a more architecturally formed piece of work.

¶ 48As an example of this undoing of Montaigne’s text and its re-weaving into Cixous’s alphabet, I propose to read a passage from Benjamin à Montaigne: Il ne faut pas le dire43. In fact a nested construction, the book’s composition builds three recurring scenes: the scene of the Jewish kitchen where mother, aunt and daughter confront one another over everyday concerns; the scene of the narrator’s Voyage to Montaigne (‘we have not recovered from our voyage to Montaigne’44); the scene of the Voyage from Montaigne to Rome, where Montaigne has ‘not completely recovered from his meeting with himself […] from the fact that Catena, though an infamous thief, was condemned, on 11th January 1581’45. These are but a few fragments that allow us to follow how the narratives enter without transition into the language of Montaigne. The book began in the idiom of the two old ladies, recast by the narrator:

¶ 49‘Shut that door!’ shouted Selma to Jennie […]
‘Shut’th’do’ is how my mother had started her day.46

¶ 50The first thirty pages are thus dedicated to the story of the two old Jewish ladies, coming back from Osnabrück where the town had organised a commemoration to honour ‘its’ deported and exterminated Jews. After which, by means of an impressive manoeuvre linking the three narratives, the rewritten description of Montaigne’s voyage47 then trans-forms the scene of Catena’s execution into an allegorical representation of Selma and Jennie’s kitchen. And reciprocally: the kitchen drama is thus magnified by the montage of rewritings, which lends it a tragic dimension, prophetic of the human condition.

¶ 51The two characters do not recover from this voyage, I thought, it had turned them into German characters of another era, they are unable to return despite their travels, despite the great familiar anger of my brother they were still lagging behind, they could not arrive despite the disaster of the suitcases, they remained standing in the kitchen, sit down, says my mother, and my mother finally sits down and then my aunt does too. Make some coffee.

¶ 52Nor do we, I thought, We do not recover from our voyage to Montaigne We have not yet managed to return either, we have held ourselves captive on this voyage despite our return to our usual Homes, I thought, while making coffee for the two old sisters uncharacteristically seated, there are indeed some dangerous voyages.

¶ 53Montaigne never completely recovered either from having met himself one day in Rome […].48

¶ 54From then on, we enter directly at the level of Montaigne’s narrative. Let us follow him for a moment through the pages of his travel journal:

¶ 55Waters [+] : The Journal of Montaigne’s Travels in Italy, vol II, trans. W.G Waters (London: John Murray, 1903), 89-90 quoted in Hélène Cixous, Benjamin à Montaigne, pp.197-8. [–] On January 11th, in the morning, as M. de Montaigne was leaving the house on horseback to go to the bank, he met Catena, a famous robber and banditti chief, whom they were taking away from the prison […]. After he was strangled they cut his body in four quarters. It is the custom amongst those people to kill criminals without torture, and after death to subject the body to very barbarous usage. M. de Montaigne remarked that he had written elsewhere how deeply people are moved by the cruelties practiced upon dead bodies, and on this occasion the crowd, who had not felt any pity at the hanging, cried out in lamentation at every stroke of the axe.49

¶ 56And as if obsessed, the narrative repeats forthwith, setting the scene a second time:

¶ 57Waters [+] : The Journal of Montaigne’s Travels in Italy, vol II, trans. W.G Waters (London: John Murray, 1903), 91-2, quoted in Hélène Cixous, Benjamin à Montaigne, 198-9. [–] On January 14th M. de Montaigne saw the execution of two brothers, formerly servants of the Castellan’s secretary […]. Their flesh was torn with pincers and their hands cut off […], they put over the wounds the bodies of capons which they had killed and cut open just before. […] they were first knocked down with heavy wooden clubs, and then their throats were cut […].50

¶ 58Hélène Cixous echoes Montaigne’s text by bringing in the narrative distance, now I, now double
also appears in ¶ 10, 19, 43
doubledduplicated, now tiers
also appears in ¶ 10, 43
third-partythird person – distance is a constitutive characteristic of the ‘subject’ of the essay as exercitation. We know, for instance, that the Journal is a hybrid text, with the first part written by a companion (secretary?) of Montaigne’s, dedicated to the task (up to the first stay in Rome51). In the word-play, which she replays, of this plurivocal alterity, the voice of the Cixous-narrator can s’introduireintroduce itselfenter admirably. Here is the text of the rewriting:

¶ 59[Catena] was strangled, without a trace of emotion from the audience, not when he was cut into quarters, no sooner did the executioner land a blow than the people followed with a cry of lamentation and an exclamation, and I too groaned at this story each time and at each blow as if each of us lent our feeling to this carcass, carcasses that we suspect to be beneath the surface, and as if we could not bear any of us in death to be degraded into an innocent animal that never hurt a soul.52

¶ 60We can clearly follow how Montaigne’s words give Cixous the thread that will weave her leitmotiv: the thread of the hen’s slaughter, of the Jewish kitchen, of the Other-in-pain (cf. above Le jour où je n’étais pas là). For the butcher’s vocabulary (‘cutting into quarters’, ‘mincing’, ‘slicing the throat) together with Montaigne’s narrative of the ‘capons that were killed and cut open’ upon the wound of the tortured victim, are ‘retranslated’ into the Cixousian sentence, offering a new reading: ‘in death to be degraded into the innocent animal that never hurt a soul’. And it is this sentence that gives her the following brand-new translation, in which she returns to the major theme up to this point of ‘Selma and Jennie return from Osnabrück’: ‘Montaigne returns again and again to this encounter in which Catena was undone, changing him beyond death alone and into meat for cooking’53.

¶ 61Through successive translations, direct entry is at work again, backwards: we had never really left Selma’s kitchen, or the kitchen of ‘my mother’. We are still in the discourse of the ‘faulty condition’.

¶ 62There’s more to the unfolding of these rewriting processes: for, word after word in the cuisinecookingmaking of the text we see the undoing, the execution of Montaigne’s language by that of Cixous. We find ourselves in the kitchen [cuisine] of the text.

¶ 63‘It mustn’t be said’: this is the book’s sub-title. And on the cover, ‘It mustn’t be said’ says: that there is something secret here for sure. That amongst other things, at its most secret, we are privy to the secret fabricationrecipeformula of literature.