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Reading Postponed: Hesitating on Hélène Cixous’s Or, les lettres de mon père

From: Women in French Studies
Special Issue, 2012
pp. 184-194 | 10.1353/wfs.2012.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Hélène Cixous’s 1997 fiction, Or, les lettres de mon père, begins with a description of reading, or of rereading, to be more precise. The narrator states in the first sentence, “Je vais relire Le Joueur […] encore une fois. C’est peut-être la septième fois que je relis c’est-à-dire que je lis, car à part le titre, je n’en sais plus rien sinon qu’il m’a déjà donné la vie six fois” (11). But this could just as well be the sixtieth time, she continues. Reading and rereading are synonymous to her, and each reading gives her life. It is, then, each time, a new beginning, even a resurrection. This act of reading and rereading depends also on the act of forgetting. “Oublier fait partie de lire,” the narrator explains (11). We forget and therefore each time the emotion and the joy of reading a particular book returns in its purity. Books die and are resuscitated in the narrator’s home day and night, she explains (12). The book that the narrator rereads comes and goes, and thereby remains a promise: “Tu m’oublieras encore je te le promets,” the book tells her (16).

For the narrator, reading is also analogous to writing. Both acts depend on beginning repeatedly, and both are a promise to be fulfilled at some later date. This is not new to Cixous’s writing. In Jours de l’an, for example, published in 1990, she depicts an author who is in the middle of writing a book at the point at which Jours de l’an begins, and for this book the fictive author rewrites the same sentence, “l’écriture était revenue” multiple times (5, 6), each time with a slight variation. The effect is such that the beginning of the book—the fictive author’s as well as Cixous’s—is difficult to identify. The fictive author’s book, unfinished at the end of Jours de l’an, eventually flies away from the author, taking its own course. The repetition of the first sentence and the book’s repeated flight and return to the fictive author reflect also the narrator’s experience both rereading and rewriting in Or, les lettres de mon père. The book that the narrator writes is “celui qui promet” (14), coming and going for years at a time. In her article, “Oublire: Cixous’s Poetics of Forgetting,” Mairéad Hanrahan shows that this to and fro movement may also mimic the movement of the reader of Or and the text itself. Considering the relationship of the opening passage to the rest of the text, she explains that, “[W]riting in general functions like letters, as a dialogue at a lag between writer and reader. Reading Or, in other words, involves a process of shuttling back and forth between the two parts of the text, as the correspondences between them appear—and disappear” (Hanrahan 88). In her exploration of the function of memory in the process of reading and writing, Hanrahan also focuses on Cixous’s conscious conflation of the verbs oublier and lire.

Cixous creates the term oublire to describe the dual process of reading and forgetting. In her essay “Le livre nié” in the collection L’Amour du loup et autres remords, Cixous applies this term to her process of writing:

L’oubli est le gardien de l’œuvre. Si je n’oubliais pas je n’écrirais pas. L’oubli est à l’œuvre dans l’œuvre dans l’écriture comme dans la lecture. J’ai inventé le mot oublire pour décrire le merveilleux mystère de la lecture : chaque année j’oublis. Dostoïevski, Stendhal, Proust, Rousseau : je lis, j’oublis. Chaque année je reviens dans leurs villes, leurs rues, leurs scènes et c’est une autre œuvre qui naît sous mon autre lecture.


Likewise, the narrator of Or describes the term: “Relire, c’est-à-dire, lire, c’est-à-dire effacer-ressusciter, c’est-à-dire, oublire” (16). Were reading and writing not forgotten, then it would not return renewed each time. Forgetting is a step that cannot be omitted in this process...

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