Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Flicker 1: Reflections on Photography and Literature in the Works of Helene Cixous

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Flicker 1: Reflections on Photography and Literature in the Works of Helene Cixous

Article excerpt

Je suis une veilleuse ...

--Helene Cixous (1)

"Qui n'a jamais contemple une veilleuse, la veilleuse ...," "Who has never contemplated such a flame, a yahrseit candle, a vigil light, the vigil light ..."--now there's a little sentence that already begins to flicker, and in English as well as French, in the dark night of Helene Cixous's photographic, photomatic, cinematic corpus (DI 26/47). It's just the opening of a sentence, no more than a sliver of light, a flash or a spark, a tiny apparition or phantom that emerges all of a sudden from out of the depths of The Day I Wasn't There, and yet already it begins to sparkle or to flicker. Broken off, isolated, detached, this obscure little phrase plunges the reader in turn into the dark, at the same time as it begins to spread an uncertain, trembling, flickering light of understanding, a light at once insistent and vulnerable, lively and yet exposed, always on the verge of being extinguished.

Let us try, then, to feed and keep this veilleuse going for a time, to protect it from both the absolute night and the blinding light that risks always to eclipse or obscure it. Let us try, in short, to light a veilleuse for this passage on the veilleuse, to set out for it a vigil light or memorial candle for the time of a reading. For it is from this single passage, I would like to show, that we can begin to read the entire work of Helene Cixous. A vigil lamp, a veilleuse, then, which is not only, as we will see, a privileged image in the work of Helene Cixous, an image described or projected by her work, but an image of the work itself, an image of Cixous's unique and irreplaceable art of thinking and writing, her irreplaceable art of replacement and her art of calling the dead back into the light and back to life. If I thus place a veilleuse, la veilleuse, and not some other image at the center of my reading here, it is in order to call up phantoms from the other side, to feed this hesitant and uncertain light and so feed them, a light that is the lifeblood, the lightblood, of ghosts and specters.

So let us begin again: "Who has never contemplated une veilleuse, la veilleuse," "Who has never contemplated such a flame, a yahrseit candle, a vigil light." Isolated in this way, the sentence seems to take the form of a question, even if there is no question mark in sight. One is reminded of Cixous's use of other apparently simple forms of questioning, for example, her unique reinscription of the ontological question, the "what is?" or ti esti question, the one Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology calls the philosophical question par excellence insofar as it aims always at some general form, essence, or eidos. Instead of thus asking, for example, "What is time?," Cixous asks in Love Itself in the Letter Box, "What is one time? [Qu'est-ce qu'une fois?]" (LI 64/90), or instead of "What is the truth?," "What is a limited truth?" (LI 104/142), or instead of "What is the good?" the even stranger "What is a dish?" (LI 30/47). There is as yet no question mark, but the sentence already interrogates or addresses us like a question. To try to see a bit more clearly, we must read on: "Who has never contemplated such a flame [une veilleuse], the yahrseit candle, the one they would light in my family one week in February, does not know the wretched glimmer of mourning, and has never seen with his own eyes the cruel, very cruel miserly misfortune represented with a dreadful meticulousness in this very poor, very pitiful icon" (DI 26/47). It is thus not a question after all, or is no longer a question, since, reading backwards and reconstructing the sentence, the question was really an affirmation or, better, it came to be replaced by an affirmation. Things are beginning to become clearer or, rather, they are beginning to be transformed: "who" means "the one who, whoever": it is "the one who has never contemplated a veilleuse" who does not "know the wretched glimmer of mourning, and has never seen with his own eyes the cruel, very cruel miserly misfortune represented with a dreadful meticulousness in this very poor, very pitiful icon" (DI 26/47). …

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