Sometimes I buy books, thinking I cannot wait to read them, then they end up on a shelf somewhere, waiting. To be fair, this happened a great deal more when I was in school. I would be convinced of the oodles of free time about to come my way and almost giggle at the thought of all the books I could finally choose to read.
Everything gets read eventually, though some books take decades. One such book is “Three Steps on the Ladder of Wrtiting” by Hèléne Cixous. I became familiar with her while studying critical theory. One of three oft discussed French feminist thinkers (Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva), Cixous was always the most accessible to me. In one of my favorite essays, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, she argues for the necessity of female writing (not writers). The clarity of her writing was a gift after reading the psychoanalytic musings of her counterparts. Cixous wrote in a way that felt more human.
In “Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing”, Cixous argues for a certain kind of book, a certain way of reading and writing. Like me, she thinks writing takes something from you, changes you. Writing should be something that pushes, takes you places you are afraid to go and perhaps aren’t ready to go. In the first chapter, she speaks of the first rung of the ladder being a visit to the School of the Dead. “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.” (p.10) This is hard for me. I’m not complaining as much as demanding change from myself. Too often, I wander near the edge, but never close enough to really be in any danger (of failure or success, which is after all, the point of the edge). I wan’t to write like that, near the extremity of life, even if I am not exactly sure what that means or how to know I am writing from that place.
“The only book that is worth writing,” Cixous writes, “is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write.” And there it is, the crux of it. I want to write that book, the one I am feel incapable of writing. After all, the books I love to read, the ones that impact me deeply, feel like they exist at the extremity of life.
Cixous quotes Kafka-
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
I agree, completely. I only want to read things that impact me, change me, inspire me, destroy me. I want to write things that do the same.
When I write, when I am successful, ten lines, three sentences, a few paragraphs, leave me speechless. I hope they do the same to others.
There are those that disagree and I would never imply that this type of writing, reading, is best for everyone, though I cannot help but feel it is a better way to write and read. Writing and reading should matter, shouldn’t they?
We all have a “frozen sea” in need of axing.