Tag Archives: Hélène Cixous

The house of widows

23 Jun

Mrs Chook, with whom I share a home, two dogs, and much of my life, became a widow some considerable time ago, after nursing her husband through lung cancer. For a while she was a member of the local Widows Club. They had good times, played cards and golf, got drunk and raucous, spoke realistically of the men they’d lost, acknowledging their aggravating complexities, at times speaking ill of their dead because there’s no human being who can’t be spoken ill of to some degree, and the Widows Club women were nothing if not honest.

I was once invited to become an honorary member, not because I was widowed but because I was separated, living life without my husband’s daily presence and sharing it with Mrs Chook, but I declined, feeling out of place. Yes, I’d lost my husband in a very real sense, but to see that misadventure as widowhood did not feel true to me.

A separation is indeed a kind of death. But death has different dimensions, and they must be given their due.

I’m sitting in a bus station watching the World Cup on the overhead TV. I’m between worlds, and remembering another bus station, another World Cup on an overhead TV in Cancun, Mexico, another country when I was alone just like now, and it occurs to me that there is something of a pattern in this, bus stations, football, overhead televisions, a heart in a confusion of desire, loss, grief, a woman facing an unknown future. A sense of the complete unknowableness of certain events, transgressive events that tear apart the fabric of the ordinary, events that force open the portal into the extremities of human experience. I realise I have no control over death, or desire or love, and should I attempt to exert any illusionary control I will make myself ludicrous. There are forces abroad in the world that far exceed my puny human capabilities, and there is nothing to be done but ride them out as best I can.

The bus station today is not in Cancun but Sydney, my husband is dying, and I suddenly recall with bizarre accuracy the notice on the door of a hotel room in Mexico City:

 Many people are injured having fun in Mexico.
Air pollution in Mexico City is severe.
Failure to pay hotel bills or pay for other services rendered is considered fraud under Mexican Law.

 

 I’m at a loss to understand the workings of my memory until I recall that my journey to Mexico caused my husband great angst, indefinite as I’d announced it would be, determined as I was to go without him as he had travelled so often without me. It marked a turning point in the dynamics between us. I had asserted myself as the leaver rather than the left. Twenty years older than me, he was outraged and bewildered, having spent much of our marriage wishing me to be Penelope, spinning faithfully at my wheel at home and keeping suitors at bay while Odysseus travelled the earth. The role never sat well with me and seemingly out of nowhere I exploded out of it, like a woman blown from the mouth of a cannon. This turning of the tables unhinged my husband somewhat, and he wept at the airport. Not even his tears could melt my determined heart. A woman has to do what a woman has to do I didn’t say, but I could have. These were serious endings. I was no longer who I had been up to that point, and neither was he who had never in his life before wept at an airport, while a woman he loved left him behind.

It is tempting to describe these endings as deaths, but I have a profound distaste for the appropriation of death as a metaphor. There is nothing in life for which death can be asked metaphorically to stand. There is nothing in life that can be likened to the radical absence that is the signifier of death. Death is the one situation in which all hope for presence ends. Up to that point, one has merely endured absence.

I have recently become a legitimate member of the Widows Club, though it no longer exists in its original form. More than three decades of marriage, always unconventional, have ended and I am no longer just living separately from my husband while we continue to love one another in spite of our differences. I am widowed. I have begun the labour of mourning, as Freud described the gradual relinquishing of all hope of connection with the loved one that is made inevitable by his or her death. I will never again see his face. I will never again hold his hand. I will never again climb up on his hospital bed and lay my warm body along the length of his frail and shrunken frame.

It’s the finality that brings me undone. I find myself repeating, in my struggle to come to terms with his departure, I never will again.

In the end, I did not leave him weeping at an airport. He left me. I don’t know if he heard me tell him I will always love him. I don’t know if he heard me tell him he did not have to stay, that I did not begrudge him this journey, that I did not need or want him to remain here with me, that I wanted only his release, that he could leave with my blessing, I don’t know if he heard those things I whispered as I laid my body the length of his, and held his beloved head against my breasts.

 Because we’re alive, we inhabit the country of the living; that which is outside, we don’t have the heart to believe, I read, in Hélène Cixious. She’s right I don’t have the heart to believe, yet it is necessary to find the heart to believe, what else is there to do?  We live in the house of widows, I tell Mrs Chook, sitting on her bed in my dressing gown, Little Dog lying on my feet, you’re so pale, she says, and I don’t tell her I’ve woken up maybe ten times in the night, crying those tears you know are serious because they are hot, and burn their way down your cold cheeks. We will be all right, she tells me. You will be all right. In time. It takes time.

As is to be expected at the death of a loved one, memories are crowding in on me, our life together parading itself well out of any chronological order, according to some time line I cannot recognise as having anything to do with reality. I see him dancing towards me across our sitting room, singing, You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it, which always symbolised for me his infuriating reluctance to take responsibility for anything. Give me give me give me give me what I sigh for, you know you’ve got the kind of kisses that I’d die for redeemed him, as he always knew it would. The night before he died I found on YouTube a video of him talking about poetry, made just before his stroke. And then, for reasons I cannot explain, I recalled a scene from The Sopranos in which Meadow Soprano sits beside her unconscious father, crime boss Tony, whom she fears is dying, and reads the Jacques Prevert verse:

Our Father which art in Heaven
Stay there
And we shall stay on earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
 

I shall stay on earth, which is sometimes so pretty. Vale, Arnold Lawrence Goldman.

Arnie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear Clementine Ford. How I feel when you talk about me.

15 May

 

us-them

 

The following are extracts from Clementine Ford‘s recent article “What Cleveland tells us about the cycle of abuse,” on the kidnapping and imprisonment of three women and a child in Cleveland, Ohio.

There’s no doubt that the facts of the case are horrific, both those known and those yet to be revealed to the authorities required to know them. (Despite our general fascination with salacious details, even those we find emotionally difficult to bear, this is not our story; the women involved are at last able to shield themselves from invasion, and that includes protecting themselves if they so choose from the world knowing to what depths the humiliation was that they suffered.)

What happened in Cleveland is horrifying, yes. It’s incomprehensible. To imagine the reality of those 10 years would cause too much distress, so we hover around its dark edges, not quite daring to look beyond the borders with anything other than quick glimpses in case our eyes lock on something we can’t unsee. But we should resist the temptation to consider it different somehow to the violence expressed on a daily basis in homes on similar suburban streets occupied by similarly “normal” people, domestic matters in which we imagine we have no obligation to get involved. 

What I am questioning in this piece is Ford’s use of the words “our” and “we.” For whom does she speak? Who is the “we” on behalf of whom, and to whom Ford enunciates? When Ford writes “our,” with what audience does she imagine she is engaging?

As a woman who survived childhood sexual and physical abuse on a scale that I still, and always will find “emotionally difficult” to bear, I do not feel included in Ford’s “we” and “ours.”

For example. I do not share our “general fascination with salacious details.”  Such details would plunge me into places I do not wish to go, because I have lived many of them. Having lived them, I am immediately framed as “not our,” and “not we” in Ford’s narrative, whose point of view, it seems to me, is entirely that of a “we” and “ours” who have not endured monstrous events.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this perspective. Not everybody has to suffer torment. But there is something terribly wrong when it is presented as the perspective, excluding those of us who have a very different experience of life, while simultaneously  making us the centre of the discussion. This inevitably creates a binary of us and them. It positions women like me outside of the centre, as represented by mainstream writing and reporting.

Women such as myself are absent in this piece of writing that is also absolutely about us. Without us, this text would not exist, yet our voices are silenced by Ford’s appropriation of our lived experience , an appropriation in which there is no place for our presence. We can be talked about. We cannot speak.

We are made the object of Ford’s, and her readers’ gaze, no matter how sympathetic and empathic that gaze may be. We are positioned outside the social order, as represented by Ford’s use of “we” and “ours.” Women such as myself cannot possibly envisage ourselves as belonging in, and to this “we” and “ours.” It is against this “we” and “ours” that women such as myself must struggle to find a place for ourselves in a culture that through no fault of our own, casts us as outside its linguistic parameters of belonging.

There is a barrier between those who’ve known violence and those who haven’t. Because of this barrier, we are forever outsiders. Our secrets set us apart. Dark knowledge taints us. We’re sullied, dirtied, spoiled by our knowledge and we struggle to rid ourselves of this legacy. We are not the “we” and “ours” who fear seeing what we can’t unsee. We have seen the unseeable. We have lived the unlivable. We are the aporia, we are that which cannot be contained within the structures and logics of texts such as Ford’s. We are, by our experiences, made other, and we are further othered by hegemonic writings that exclude us, except as objects of the sympathetic gaze.

Feminist thinker  and writer Hélène Cixous suggests that we should not think of women such as myself as “victims,” but rather as “subjects of suffering.” …human beings, she continues, try to live through the worst sufferings. To make humanity of them. To distil them, to understand their lesson. We do this, those of us who can. Many of us can’t. Many of us die. Many of us live lives of unimaginable difficulty. Most of us never have a voice. We must put up with hearing about ourselves and our experiences from others, who shudder at the horror we’ve endured. This serves only to further marginalise us. This makes us spectacle.

What happened in Cleveland is not “incomprehensible” to me, as it is to the “we” Ford addresses. It is all too comprehensible.

Unlike the “we” Ford addresses, there is no temptation for me to consider what happened in Cleveland as “different” from what happened for years in my outwardly “normal” home on an ordinary street, except in some of the specifics.

The call for the “community” to take action to prevent such ruptures as the Cleveland events, or indeed my own sufferings, seems extraordinarily naive to me. How are we to depend on a “community” whose prominent feminist spokespeople see us as other, however empathetically, and exclude us from their discourse?

To imagine the reality of those 10 years would cause too much distress, so we hover around its dark edges, not quite daring to look beyond the borders with anything other than quick glimpses in case our eyes lock on something we can’t unsee.

These are the words of the privileged, who can choose to avoid the distress, who can hover, salaciously, around the dark edges, lacking the courage to cross the borders and walk with those of us who’ve had no choice in the matter, and who can never fully return from that dark country to the land of “we” and “ours.”

Those of us “subjects of suffering” who have survived enough to speak have much to offer, weighted with the authority given to us by our lived experience. We could tell you, for example, that there is a universe of difference between sexual harassment, and the violence we have endured. You may not care to hear that, but we can tell you that is so.

Given the horrific statistics for violence and sexual violence against women in this country, there must be many of our number among Ford’s readers. Yet writing such as this excludes us all. There must be many others who, like me, read this piece and think, I am not of this ‘we.” I am not of this “ours.”  This is not written for and to a woman with a life such as mine has been. It is written about women like me, but it is not written with me. It does not walk with me. It does not take my hand. It does not acknowledge me as an equal. It is writing that distances itself from me, and me from it.

If we are to intervene in the cycles of violence that bring abject horror to the lives of so many of us, we are first going to need a new discourse with which to do it. That discourse will  not create a barrier between those of us who have suffered and those of us who have not. There will be no excluding “we” and “ours.”  We do not need sympathy. We do not need to be isolated in our suffering. We need those who will walk beside us, equals in our shared humanity, no matter how varied our experiences.

If feminism cannot do this for women, it is a failed project.

This is how I feel when you talk about me.

 

Justice

10 May

cixous-blog Helene Cixous

“I want to use this word: Justice. We do not think with justice. The world is not just. The  world-wide non-justice that we all know politically has spread all the way to our imaginations. It goes so far that we are not just with the earth, with the stars, with ground, with blood, with skin. In advance, and without our even being informed, everything is already ordered-classed according to a scale which gives primacy to one element over another. And power to one thing, or to one being over another. All the time. And in an unfounded manner.

So when I write…in the course of the writing, I am already in the process of shaking this all up. So that what is at the top stops being at the top by believing itself to be at the top; not so as to make the top fall towards the bottom, but so that the bottom has the same prestige, that it be restored to us with its treasures, with its beauties.

The other in all his or her forms gives me I. It is on the occasion of the other that I catch sight of me; or that I catch me at: reacting, choosing, refusing, accepting. It is the other who makes my portrait. Always. And luckily. The other is of all sorts, is also of diverse richness. The more the other is rich, the more I am rich. The other, rich, will make his or her richness resonate in me and enrich me. This is what people do not know in general, and it’s too bad…

Quint Buchholz

The world is mistaken. It imagines that the other takes something from us whereas the other only brings to us, all the time. The other is complex. He can be our enemy, and our friend. Our enemy is not necessarily bad. Our enemy also teaches us something. He does not necessarily teach us hate. He makes a sort of mysterious map of all our points of vulnerability appear.  He does not only teach us to defend ourselves. He teaches us to grow: because there are many possibilities to work with the enemy, when he is not death itself.”

Hélène Cixous. Rootprints.

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