- Terrible but Unfinished:Stories of History
This article argues that Hélène Cixous’s fictions develop a poetics of autoethnography. It argues further that this poetics explores undersides of the modern discourse of the sublime as well as limits of the authorial “I” that has been engendered by this discourse. Through a metafiction of “ghostwriting,” on the one hand, and a fiction of the peopled “I,” on the other, Cixous rearticulates justice and authority in ways that can reinform our understanding of these frames of reality.
I was hoping to do something impossible, something, I would say, more important than anything for me, but important as impossible, something as impossible as important and therefore destined to succeed only in failure: this "thing" I have been hoping beyond hope to do would be to bring together in the space of a single paper the two continents, or rather the two C's, the two seasons and what I would call the two seams of my thinking and doing: Cixous and Cambodia. It would be quite beautiful I believe, this impossible crossing, and it is not something I can bear to abandon outright. But rest assured, I will not actually achieve it here, there is no totalizing synthesis on the horizon of this paper and thus no end to history in sight. And I suppose it's better this way.
I want to think here about the great question of tragedy, and about one tragedy in particular—which is immediately more than one. Two tragedies at least: because tragedy, the word tragedy, means both a theatrical form, a play of a certain kind in a certain tradition, associated with the institution and the space of the theater, and an event or a series of events in the "real" world. I am not talking about the relation between the stage of the unconscious and the stage of history, to quote the title of a well-known essay by Hélène Cixous, but about the two stages of history if you will: the stage of the history play and the stage of history, what is called history, beyond or shy of the theater. This situation is compounded or underlined by a problem of translation here, because the word histoire in French means both story and history. I will consider two plays by Cixous which have the word histoire in their title: L'histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge (The Terrible but Unfinished Story/History of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia) [End Page 197] and L'histoire (qu'on ne connaîtra jamais) (The Story/History (which we will never know)),1 two plays which are at once real and fictive, and which address this question of relations between fiction and reality, between story and history or between two meanings of tragedy.
L'histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge, the first play written by Cixous for the Théâtre du Soleil, opened in Paris in 1985. The terrible but unfinished story: the story of the history is "terrible," genocidal, tragic, but it is "unfinished." In a certain, common, sense, this is a contradiction in terms or an oxymoron: a terrible history, in other words, a tragedy, can only be finished. One might think that this is precisely what is terrible about the tragedy. It could even be taken to be the very definition of tragedy as terrible history: a tragedy is essentially eschatological, to begin with it is finished, it careens towards an end that is already there at the outset, it is doomed to achieve a predestined finish. Such is (the) tragedy: there is no escape, not even any ambiguity or uncertainty; the future is written in advance, it is necessity, and this future is necessarily the end, which is to say death.
So this title, The Terrible but Unfinished Story . . . , already suggests a certain figure of the impossible, a finish that is not finished, a reckless and mad hope in the face of implacable necessity. The contradiction that the "but" represents, between "Terrible" and "Unfinished," is perhaps a necessary contradiction, perhaps it is precisely the certainty of...