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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le rêve, ou « l’encre dans la tête » d’Hélène Cixous

by Alain Nicolas

The world of dreams, or « an inkwell in her head » by Hélène Cixous

Ève s’évade. 
La ruine et la vie, d’Hélène Cixous. Éditions Galilée. 208 pages, 25 euros.

Translated Sunday 3 January 2010, by Edward Lamb and reviewed by Isabelle Métral

From Montaigne to Freud, Balzac to Rubens, incarceration and the gift of life, (such are) the key figures of an inspired work, dedicated to the author’s mother, Eve, in the throes of extreme old age.

« An affidavit attesting to the loss of…Dreaming; I would have to settle for that.» One morning, a dream dreamt by Hélène Cixous [1] [2]
“a nice, long dream, as complicated as the world itself ”, suddenly slipped away, “in my head, it was as if someone had pulled a rug right out from under my feet”. Does a departed dream suffice to undertake the writing of a book [3] ? Perhaps. In any case, it remains that dreams are an ubiquitous matter in the series of texts which compose the book: Eve s’évade (Eve Flees). Dreaming, whether kept private or made public, which, for our intents and purposes, concern those dreams which have been recorded, whether in writing or in painting, those narrated or analysed for the reader. Some seventy years earlier, Freud realized that he wasn’t dreaming anymore [4], that he had been “dispossessed of dreams”, he, the ‘Wonderful Wizard of Dreams’, himself. The dreams had gone away. The end was near. The last dream he described, at the very moment when Balzac’s tale, La Peau de chagrin [5] had become his bedside companion, was entitled “A true novel” [6].

As we well know, dreams and novels have close ties. Throughout the corpus of Hélène Cixous’ works, from Rêve je te dis [7] to Hyperrêve [8], they are like the « Sod of the Earth » [9], in equivalence with the real world in which the eight stages of the book take their roots [10]. As in Ciguë [11], Eve s’évade finds its source in an image, a picture drawn from the old age of her mother, Eve, whom the author perceives as being “substituted”, little by little, as Mummy gives way to Omi [12], her other name. With age, she becomes « ommified », as if « embalmed in absence ». A dream, if it has a name, also has a gender. What we are dealing with, here, are obviously female dreams, « Women’s Dreams » [13]. The dream of a pregnant woman’s belly : Eve, Hélène’s mother, who has just turned ninety-seven years old, used to be a midwife [14]. Childbirth, the gift of life, obeying the logic of dreams, give breath to every single page, in various forms. The main scene, inspired by a historical Greek legend, shows Cimon, a prisoner deprived of nourishment for having illegally buried his father. Miraculously, he survives until it is revealed that his daughter, Pero, kept him alive by nursing him at her own breast on each of her visits [15]]. This pious scene, above and beyond its quasi-incestuous connotations, inspired Montaigne [16], Rubens [17] and many others. Pero restores to her father that which she owes him - the gift of life; and that very scene comes to Hélène Cixous’ mind as she finds herself involved in obtaining the cemetery lot where her own father is buried, just as her mother’s extreme old age becomes a crucial reality in her life. Then and there, her thoughts went out to a dying Freud, looked after by his daughter, Anna, left without dreams and recalling those he had annotated, such as “The Dream of the Prisoner” [18].

Thus, meaning flows throughout the admirably moving pages of Ève s’évade (Eve Flees). Fluid and logical, evident and unexpected, from pattern to pattern, from one idea to another, by free association, as in dreams. A sensitive journey, one where rigueur and construct do not stifle the emotion, pages marked by the felicity of a fusional mother-daughter relationship and the angst of a tragic end require of the reader both attention and surrender. “Do you have a lot more ink left in your head?”, her mother asks. Let us hope that the answer is “yes”.

Alain Nicolas

Hélène Cixous was the guest speaker of the Friends of l’Humanité, on Saturday, 5th December at 3 o’clock P.M.; Maison de la poésie, 157, rue Saint-Martin, Paris.

Translator’s Notes:

[1Hélène Cixous (French pronunciation: [elɛn siksu]; born June 5, 1937) is a professor, French feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician. In 2009, she was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature by University College, London.

[2“She was the first child of Eve Cixous, née Klein (b. 1910), a refugee from Osnabrück in Nazi Germany…
Noteworthy among her creations are the much-debated method of ‘feminine writing’ as writing of the body, the DEA in Études Féminines (Women’s Studies Degree) at the University of Paris VIII, and the grammatical manipulation of words, such as “Jewoman,” which literally render the effects of cultural and sexual difference.”

[3"How," Jacques Derrida astutely asks, "can an autobiographical writing, in the abyss of an unterminated self-analysis, give birth to a world-wide institution?"

[4“I have not yet ceased mourning the lost dream.” – Freud.
Masson, J.M. (1985) (Ed.) The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

FREUD-FLIESS: BRIEFE AN WILHELM FLIESS 1887-1904, 1986 (ed. by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Michael Schröter, and Gerhard Fichtner) - The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (tr. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson).

See, also: “Freud, Fliess, and the Lost Dream”; Deborah P. Margolis, M.A.

[5The Wild Ass’s Skin: Honoré de Balzac (Author), translated by Herbert J. Hunt.

Toward the end of his life, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud felt a special connection to Balzac’s novel, since he believed that his world was shrinking like Valentin’s talisman. Diagnosed with a fatal tumor, Freud resolved to commit suicide. After re-reading La Peau de chagrin, he said to his doctor: "This was the proper book for me to read; it deals with shrinking and starvation." The next day, his doctor administered a lethal dose of morphine, and Freud died.

- Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk, Matthew von Unwerth. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. (pp. 187–189).

Shagreen is a type of leather or rawhide consisting of rough untanned skin, formerly made from a horse’s back or that of an onager (wild ass), and typically dyed green. Shagreen is now commonly made of the skins of sharks and rays. The word derives from the French chagrin (sorrow) which in turn is borrowed from Turkish sağrı "the back of a horse". The roughness of texture led to the French meaning of displeasure or ill-humor.

The elderly shopkeeper leads him to a piece of shagreen hanging on the wall. It is inscribed with "Oriental" writing; the old man calls it "Sanskrit", but it is in fact imprecise Arabic. The skin promises to fulfill any wish of its owner, shrinking slightly upon the fulfillment of each desire.

"The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind." (from The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900). - Freud

“III. The Dream Is The Fulfillment Of A Wish:
When after passing through a narrow defile, we suddenly emerge upon a piece of high ground, where the path divides and the finest prospects open up on every side, we may pause for a moment and consider in which direction we should turn our steps. Such is the case with us, now that we have surmounted the first interpretation of a dream. We find ourselves in the full daylight of a sudden discovery. Dreams are not to be likened to the unregulated sounds that rise from a musical instrument struck by the blow of some external force instead of by a player’s hand; they are not meaningless, they are not absurd; they do not imply that one portion of our store of ideas is asleep while another portion is beginning to wake. On the contrary, they are psychical phenomena of complete validity-fulfillments of wishes; they can be inserted into the chain of intelligible waking mental acts; they are constructed by a highly complicated activity of the mind.”
- The Interpretation Of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud (Author), James Strachey (General Editor, translator).
The first edition (in German, and bearing the title Die Traumdeutung) was published in November 1899.

[6“Today, I’m going to talk about Jean Paul Sartre and this may seem strange, because he is no longer popular; not even controversial any more. But still I may be able to persuade you that his concept of "the true novel" is very relevant today to our view of psychoanalysis as a dialectical process in which the analyst and patient engage in the joint development of a narrative of the analysand’s life. I think of Sartre as providing extra-analytic confirmation of this view.”
“This evidence from his case reports makes it very clear that Freud, just as Sullivan, was writing what Sartre called ‘True Novels’.”
- Dyrud, J.E. (1984). Sartre and Psychoanalysis—What We can Learn from a Lover’s Quarrel. Contemp. Psychoanal., 20:230-24.

[7Reves, je te dis, (Galilée, 2003). Dream, I Tell You : Helene Cixous (Author), Beverley Bie Brahic (Translator); Edinburgh University Press.

“If countless millennia of dream interpretation and a century of Freud et al. haven’t quite unlocked the secrets of dreams, neither have they succeeded in making other people’s dream lives as interesting as one’s own. But if any writer might form an exception to this rule, it is the grande dame of intellectual France, Cixous, whose dreams are addressed to no less than her intimate friend Jacques Derrida—who has since responded to this book with one (Geneses, Genealogies, Genres and Genius) of his own. Cixous’s dream diaries, selected from the past decade and presented without editing (Brahic’s translation captures their late night spontaneity) are models of lucidity. Whether describing an awkward dinner with Heidegger, a scene from her Algerian childhood or a tour of Auschwitz, her grasp of both essential detail and emotional nuance is always convincing. The dreams never feel padded or faked, and make their transition to the page with an ease and precision possible only through real intellectual rigor and self-knowledge. Though probably a worthy introduction for novices to Cixous’s wide-ranging oeuvre—which includes drama and poetry as well as literary criticism—devotees will be those most richly rewarded by these brief, glimmering, allusive texts, which constitute a gloriously subjective intellectual autobiography.”

- Publishers Weekly, Date: Apr 17, 2006 | Author: Edited by Jill A. Tardiff with John Niernberger, Diane Patrick, Karole Riippa, Mary Ann Tennenhouse and Carol Wiener.
(Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.)

[8Hyperrêve, (Galilée, 2006).

[9“The Sod of the Earth”, which, if it rings nicely to the ear, does not exactly translate this double personification for Woman(kind)… ; for Ms. Cixous’ clever play on words, once again, defies literal translation. Indeed, as the epic Babylonian creation legend known as the Enuma Elish would have it, Marduk, "after splitting her (Tiamat’s) body into two pieces, set one piece in the sky to create the heavens and the other at his feet to form the earth." (Myths Encylopedia). Even trampled and humiliated the primal feminine essence remains the elemental ’humus’ of Creation, from which all earthly life must ultimately spring...

To truly understand the allusion, the reader must refer to Cixous’ poignant essay on the late Nancy Spero’s militant feminist artwork (“The War Series”, 1966-70). They both cry out against « le massacre de tout ce qui est ‘’femme’’ sur le Sol du Monde… » ; (« the massacre of everything that represents ‘womankind’ on the World’s Ground Zero…. », E.L.).
« dix mille ans que Marduk a tué Tiamat, il l’a éventrée, éviscérée aplatie, tannée, a transformé sa chair en fine pellicule de papier, a fait des abat-jours avec sa peau et du savon avec sa graisse, et ça continue, le massacre… » ; (« it’s been ten thousand years since Marduk killed Tiamat, he ripped her open, threw out her guts, rolled her flat, tanned her hide, made a paper thin film of her flesh, made lampshades out of her skin and soap out of the fatty layers, and it’s still going on, the massacre… », E.L.).
« Dissidanses de Spero » : Hélène Cixous

“Nancy Spero, Artist of Feminism, Is Dead at 83” - By Holland Cotter; Published: October 19, 2009); http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/arts/design/20spero.html?_r=1.

[10“They have always been there. I do not know them. I have never looked at them. I ’know’ they are there. Their presence. Roots. Mine? My so strange roots.” - Hélène Cixous. (English excerpt from Rootprints).
Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, Trans. by Eric Prenowitz (London: Routledge, 1997).

[11Ciguë : Vieilles femmes en fleurs, (Galilée, 2008)

[12« Eve s’évade. La Ruine et la Vie s’enlève sur le récit d’une substitution qui accentue la métamorphose maternelle amorcée dans Ciguë : “Ça ce n’était donc plus maman […] je commençai à tenter de peindre la vision irradiante de maman (saisie muée transie tournée traduite) en Omi, de maman omifiée”. », (« Eve s’évade. La Ruine et la Vie takes up on the story of a substitution which accentuates the maternal metamorphosis having already begun in Ciguë : “So, that was no longer Mummy […] I began to try painting the illuminated vision of Mummy, as if (caught up, molted, fixed, interiorized, interpreted) in the form of Omi, like an ommified mummy. », E.L.).
« …fait surgir en Eve sa propre mère Omi » (“Brings out, in Eve, her own mother, Omi”; E.L.)
« Hélène Cixous, Eve et l’encre du rêve » ; Véronique Bergen - Libération du 19 novembre 2009.

[13See, also : Rêves de femmes (hommage à Hélène Cixous), Angèle Paoli.

[14She was the first child of Eve Cixous, née Klein (b. 1910), a refugee from Osnabrück in Nazi Germany, and her husband Georges Cixous (1909–1948), whose ancestors had come to Algeria through the expulsion and trade routes from Spain and Morocco.
Her mother, Eve, took up midwifery to support her family. Known as “the ‘Arabs’ midwife’ in Algiers,” she practiced until her expulsion with the last French doctors and midwives in 1971.
For Hélène Cixous, these circumstances of her genealogy, birth and life story, or, more precisely, the psychological and political conflicts inherent in these circumstances, were the seeds of her work: “My own writing was born in Algeria out of a lost country of the dead father and the foreign mother.” Playing with the “aberrant, extravagant” question of nationality became part of the diasporic lifelong exercise of their daughter Hélène, who “never thought I was at home [in Algeria], nor that Algeria was my country, nor that I was French.” Instead, her adolescent experience of Algerian Jewishness made her realize that the logic of nationality was usually accompanied by such “unbearable behaviors” as colonialism or antisemitism. It also made her think of herself and her family in the provocative terms of a multiple alterity constituted by the logic of nationality, but which also undermines it with a form of speech seeking moral and political precision rather than authority: “How could I be from a France that colonized an Algerian country when I knew that we ourselves, German Czechoslovak Hungarian Jews, were other Arabs.” http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cixous-helene

[15“When the aged Cimon was forced to starve in prison before his execution, his devoted daughter Pero secretly visited her father to nourish him at her own breast.”
Source: http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=135448

“The father foster’d at his daughter’s breast/
Oh, filial piety !-The milk design’d/
For her own offspring, on the parent’s lip/
Allays the parching fever. All her laws/
Inverted quite, great Nature triumphs still.”/

- Arthur Murphy: The Grecian daughter (Act 2. Sc. 2.); Drury Lane, 1772

[16Montaigne, l’imprimeur Nivelle et la fille qui allaitait son père (scène peinte)”, JR (Journal de la Renaissance), vol. 2, 2004, p. 155-164(ill.).
Au-dessus de la petite cheminée rustique du cabinet peint jouxtant sa “librairie”, Montaigne a fait peindre une scène pour nous troublante, en son temps édifiante: dans un cachot, une jeune femme (Péro) allaite un vieillard (son père, Cimon, condamné mourir de faim). Sans doute héritée de modèles antiques, la position des deux personnages est la même que celle qu’on trouve l’un des quatre médaillons de piété filiale qui entourait la marque d’éditeur “aux cigognes” de l’imprimeur Nivelle. Il n’est pas anodin que Montaigne ait fait peindre ce tableau, improprement appelé “charité romaine”, l’année même où naissait sa fille Léonor…

Above the small, rustic fireplace in the room adjacent to his « library », Montaigne commissioned a painting we might now find somewhat disquieting, although considered enlightening, given the historical context: in a dark dungeon, a young woman (Pero) is breastfeeding an old man (her father, Cimon, condemned to die of starvation). Probably a legacy of antique art forms, the characters’ postures are similar to those figuring on one of the four medallions depicting filial piety which surround the editor’s device “swans”. It is no mere coincidence that Montaigne had the scene, somewhat erroneously called “Roman Charity”, painted the very year his own daughter, Leonor, was born…(E.L.).

See, also : « Montaigne Studies », by Alain LEGROS; (Université de Chicago).

Roman Charity (or Carità Romana) is the story of a daughter, Pero, who secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. She is found out by a jailer, but her act of selflessness impresses officials and wins her father’s release.
The story is recorded in Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans, Book Nine (De Factis Dictisque Memorabilibus Libri IX) by the ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus, and was presented as a great act of filial piety and Roman honor. In about AD 1362 the story was retold by the famous writer Giovanni Boccaccio.
Primarily, the story tells of a conflict. An existing taboo (implied incest and adult breastfeeding of a woman’s milk) or saving a life by breaking the taboo. In this aspect there is no erotic focus to the story.
For contemporary (20th Century) fictional account of Roman Charity, see John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), Chapter 30, where Rosasharn nurses a sick and starving man in the corner of a barn.

See, also : QUINT David, Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy. Ethical and political themes in the Essais, Princeton Univers. Pr., 1998

[17The sensual aspects inherent in Caritas Romana seem to have appealed to Rubens who painted several versions of the theme.

In the first version, dating from c. 1610, the influence of Beham’s engravings is apparent. Although one can sense the intensity of the daughter’s compassion for her helplessly chained father, there is an erotic tension between the two figures. The starved Cimon is portrayed as a muscular man, close in age to his daughter. In an etching after Rubens’ painting dedicated to its commissioner, Carel van den Bosch, the Bishop of Bruges, there is an attempt to “tone down” the erotic aspects by adding an inscription elucidating the moral underlying the story: “Now you see what real love is. The devoted child gives her milk to a father pitiably oppressed by hunger and hard chains; and this great love is said to have gained life for Cimon. Thus daughter became parent to her father.”
In another work by Rubens dated to c. 1635, Pero and Cimon are depicted in a sensual, lustful manner. Pero is succulent and her pair of lush breasts burst through her dress; this intensifies the erotic aspect, albeit the depiction clearly attests to Cimon’s great appetite. Rubens further enhanced the drama by adding two guards who peek through the prison’s barred window. Pero, who knows that she is being watched, turns toward them with a pleading gaze.

The story was also told by other Roman writers as a paradigm of filial piety, among them Plinius, Hyginus, Festus, Solinus. See: E. McGrath, Rubens Subjects from History (Corpus Rubenianum), II, London 1997, p. 101, n. 4.

“The Female Breast as a Source of Charity: Artistic Depictions of Caritas Romana”; Golda Balass. Dr. Golda Balass , lecturer in the Department of Art History, Tel Aviv University

[18“The Dream of the Prisoner” (1836), Moritz Ludwig von Schwind, Austrian, (1804 – 1871)

“At this point I refer you to a picture by Schwind, from the
Schack Gallery in Munich, so that you may see how rightly the
artist has conceived the origin of a dream from a dominating
situation. It is the Dream of a Prisoner which can have no
other subject than his release. It is a very neat stroke that the
release should be effected through the window, for the ray of
light that awakens the prisoner comes through the same window.
The gnomes standing one above the other probably represent
the successive positions which he himself had to take in climbing
to the height of the window, and I do not think I am mistaken
or that I attribute too much preconcerted design to the artist,
by noting that the uppermost of the gnomes, who is filing the
grating (and so does what the prisoner would like to do) has
the features of the prisoner.”
A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, By Prof. Sigmund Freud, Ll.D.; Authorized Translation With A Preface By G. Stanley Hall President, Clark University.
Published, 1920, by Boni & Liiveright, INC.
See, also: Sigmund Freud, lecture 8, "Children’s Dreams," Introductory Lectures On Psycho- ...

“In every edition of Freud’s A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis there may be found a reproduction of a painting (Figure 1.) by a Viennese artist, Moritz von Schwind, (1804-1871) entitled The Dream of the Prisoner. 1) The fact that it was just this painting rather than any number of others that Freud selected strikes one as being particularly significant, and is especially so since there are so few pictorial illustrations in Freud’s works, the only others being, in fact, the Moses of Michelangelo, some of the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and a reproduction of a cartoon from a Hungarian paper found in some editions of The Interpretation of Dreams.”
“This work of art, now at the Schack Gallerie in Munich, belongs to the period of German Romanticism and was painted in 1836. On examination, this painting reveals a man in the foreground, reclining on a blanket on the floor of a prison. His back and his neck are resting on a pile of straw. Beside him, near the straw…”
A Psychoanalytic Study of Schwind’s “The Dream of a Prisoner”, Alexander Grinstein, M.D.
Tales of the Unconscious, Alexander Grinstein (Auteur)

The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XV (1915-1916): Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Parts I and II)
Translated from the German under the General Editorship of James Strachey
In Collaboration with:
Anna Freud , Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson.

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