- Algerian Imprints: Ethical Space in the Work of Assia Djebar and Hélène Cixous by Brigitte Weltman-Aron
by Brigitte Weltman-Aron
Columbia UP, 2015.
xx + 207 pp. ISBN 9780231172561 cloth.
In Algerian Imprints, the first book-length publication devoted exclusively to Hélène Cixous and Assia Djebar, Brigitte Weltman-Aron focuses on the rich corpuses of these two renowned writers of French who were born in Algeria in the 1930s. The author argues that the novelty of her analysis lies in its attention to “a recurring gesture on the part of Cixous and Djebar, which consists not in deploring but in affirming the chance for thinking afforded by marginalization, exclusion, expropriation” (xiv). Indeed, the experiences these writers depict in their literary creations as “imposed demarcations and unconscious disjunctions” (xiii) have led to an “affirmative thinking in Djebar and Cixous” that Weltman-Aron examines in a “philosophical interrogation of the political” that places the writings of these two women alongside the French-language work of a number of influential men, ranging from philosophers to historians, including Jacques Derrida, Abdelkébir Khatibi, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Benjamin Stora (xv). It is Derrida’s thought that recurs with the greatest frequency in this study not only because he was a close friend and frequent collaborator of Cixous, but also because his own lived experience in Algeria inspired many of his insights into autobiography, education, hospitality, language, testimony, and writing, concepts that are critical to this tripartite book.
The brief introduction to Algerian Imprints presents “dissensus” as “a term that designates antagonism within a discourse or indicates dissent, nonconformity with predominant views in a community,” a word that allows Weltman-Aron to communicate the complexity of the “ethical/political space” that she discerns has always been present in the work of both Cixous and Djebar (xi). Part one, titled “Colonial Demarcations,” is made up of a chapter devoted to literary depictions of the body that reveal “a consistent invitation to de-limit the body in order to reframe its potentialities in an Algerian space that is manifold or heterogeneous” (5), followed by an examination of schooling that revisits the rejection that the two writers felt, albeit differently, in the colonial educational system. Cixous’s Jewish identity meant that both the French and the Arab populations excluded her, and Djebar’s unusual access to French schools—thanks to her Arab father’s position as a teacher—entailed estrangement from many of the other girls from her homeland who were not able to attain an education. Part two, “Poetics of Language,” contains a beautiful reflection on Djebar’s relationship to literary composition as “writing for the trace,” as comprising an effort to preserve a heritage from possible oblivion but that also necessarily falls short of this goal because it seeks to guarantee “the transmission of something that remains elusive and radically defies presentation” (65). An accompanying chapter concentrates on language and hospitality in Cixous, exposing her “new thinking of the mother” as “a function of resistance [End Page 186] to separation” (77) that has inspired the writer to embrace “a form of resistance” defined by “less frontal opposition” “that does not exclude affirmation” (83).
Part three turns to the crucial issue of the Algerian War, the eight-year conflict that came to an end in 1962 and resulted in Algerian independence after over one hundred and thirty years of French domination, focusing first on Djebar’s commitment to “testimonial alternatives that would both recount and respect a wish for silence and secrecy” (xviii) before examining Cixous’s elaboration of “an account of violence that requires another configuration than the opposition of war to peace, hate to love, activity to passivity,” a “writing driven by the ethical question of politics or of responsibility” that is conscious of the seemingly paradoxical possibility of what the writer calls a “togetherness in hostility” (xix). This is indeed a unique and deeply significant position that Weltman-Aron articulates as “separation as an ethical relation” (126).
The conclusion touches on the contentious question of the veil...