Writing the Line:
A reading of the intersection of literature
and philosophy in Veils
The work of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous are very close—like two sides of a mountain, they share the same interior, the same rubble. They are in constant, sometimes overt, sometimes oblique, reference to one another. In Veils the separation between them is razor thin, the size of this page. I quote Cixous on meeting Derrida for the first time:
While Hélène watches Derrida ride the line, a near-death experience, between one side of a mountain and the other, she is the one writing or “riding” the line, in what she calls her “poet-philosopher voice,” from a removed, translated perspective, looking at Derrida who is so close to himself, they are in fact riding (writing) each others' lines.
I’m trying to understand the place where literature and philosophy coincide. I walk into a bookstore and I look for a book by Hélène Cixous, or Jacques Derrida and I’m sent to two different sides of a mountain, two different sides of the bookstore. A gendered difference. And yet this space between them is razor thin, the size of a crest of a mountain, or a piece of paper.
What does this difference consist of? I’m having difficulty saying it. Or rather, I’m having difficulty saying it without employing those tools which it uses to express itself. I keep coming back to Cixous writing Derrida riding the mountain, the page, the Veil.
Perhaps it is only possible to speak of this space where literature and philosophy intersect as a metaphor because it is a metaphor, or is metaphor. Metaphor, a kind of writing that has often been assigned to the poet, has a relationship to absence, death and otherness that appears at the intersection, or rather the non-intersection—since this intersection is precisely the place, the non-place, where each does not come together with itself—of poetry and philosophy.
In order to explain what I mean by this I’ll step back, or down, a bit into the rubble of Deconstruction, to understand better what Derrida and Cixous might hear in the word metaphor, and likewise what they may understand the place of metaphor to be in the discourse of philosophy.
Now I quote Paul deMan, from “Rhetoric of Tropes; Nietzsche” in Allegories of Reading:
This is a reading of a reading of the tropical location of the self in philosophical discourse. Nietzsche wants to, in part, oppose truth to metaphor, and thus to pit self against self. The self is false, the self is a metaphor; therefore philosophy is aberrant because, in spite of itself, it situates the self at the birth of truth. How can, Nietzsche would like to know, truth coincide with truth if the vehicle within which it travels is a lie—this self that is a metaphor? Metaphor is both the foundation of truth and its annihilator, simultaneously. The center of philosophical discourse in this case is thus not only a metaphor but likewise shares an essential structure with metaphor: an essential disjunct, a non-convergence of self with self, center with center, same with same, other with other. This is one of the principle iterations of Deconstruction.
Now let us return to Veils, to Cixous’ center, a figure of a myopic young girl, who Cixous calls “her,” “she,” who is not Cixous. Yet we know from reading Cixous that Cixous was a myopic little girl, and since Cixous very often writes about herself, her self, we may nearly assume that this “she” “her” is Cixous. In Villes Promises a lecture given by Cixous at the 2004 Conference on translation in Arles, she quotes Veils, and comments on her citation, on the myopic girl of Veils,
In this essay, the passage from third to first person, from self to other, is used as a way of explaining translation, of explaining two words that must mean the same, that can never mean the same. (Derrida says that everything is both translatable and untranslatable, that the impossibility of translation is also its necessity.) Hélène’s myopic engages in the same game as deMan’s reading of Nietzsche’s tropical self, and the same game as translation.
Let us return to Veils.
But her myopia does not stay the same. In fact, it does the exact opposite. It becomes other (again), it goes away, it dies. Our myopic, she (I?) receives an eye surgery and her myopia becomes a thing of the past, “Suddenly, myopia, ‘the other’, the unwelcome, is unveiled”[i]and she must say “Farewell to this veil she cursed so much.” So much happens in her new world of seeing, but one thing is that she is no longer myopic. She is not only seeing now, but is no longer not seeing. The piece is titled Savoir and this condition, not of seeing, but of no longer not seeing, and likewise, of seeing herself see, becomes both her node and her mode of knowing. Savoir, translated both as savoir, to know, or knowledge, and also sa voir, his/her to see, including the echo of sans voir (without vision, without being able to see) as well as, sa voix, her voice/his voice.
What else is concealed behind the Veil? What else lies on the other side of not-seeing, on the other side of Cixous’ text, behind a woven fabric nearly the same width as a Veil, the page? It’s Derrida’s text, Un Vers a Soi (translated as A Silkworm of One’s Own)— in vers we hear a polyphony of homophonies and homonyms: verre as in glass, vers, towards, un vers or invers, inverse, vers, worm, vers, verse—and in soi, self, silk, the subjunctive form of the verb to be, soit. And much history that I leave out faute de temps. The reference to Cixous’ text is veiled, as reference to his is veiled in Savoir, both titles making reference to the self sa voir, vers a soi—a self that is object, other, both me and her, or him, one-self, more than one self, Cixous or Derrida, or Cixous or Derrida. Although neither of the texts critiques the other in a direct fashion—in a hermeuntical sense—the tropes nevertheless endure in a sense, in some senses, in the transition between them—the Veil the Fabric, the tallith, the warp and woof of the threads in a fabric—as in a translation, although their modes and meanings change. And like in a translation, although certain metaphors endure, we can never read them both at the same time. As we read one, the other is always concealed behind the page, the Veil, the other always comes “too early, or too late.” Again, the disjunct, or the non-convergence at the center of the metaphor, a disjunct that divides Veils “literary” text from its “philosophical” one.
Derrida’s text is therefore a metaphor of the myopic, of Cixous’ figure, her figuration, and of the crossing from one side of the veil to the other in which the condition of the same is also the condition of no-longer-not-being-what-one-was, which is a metaphor for the essential disjunct of the metaphor. A metaphor of metaphor, and a metaphor for its own metaphorization.
Derrida likewise deconstructs his parallel trope, the tallith, which is both like the Veil and not like the veil, the difference between them also incarnating sexual difference, which is in many ways the principal theme of Veils. The tallith is “One” like “Yahweh.” It “depends on the One of the unique” (64). It is “the singular event” (64). It comes “before all else” (64) It is also “a tunic” (65), a “text” (65), “skin” (67) the “law” (64), “mine” (66) my “brother”’s (65) my “neighbor’s” (65) it is “animal” (68), “dead” (69), “living” (69) a “nickname” (69): “What I am nicknaming here the tallith” and “All my nicknames, I have so many.” This is a very familiar Derridian way of allegorizing his own writing and deconstructing himself as he writes (as we read, as his text is unfolding). The statement tallith = tallith or one = one becomes à travers (across) the text, across its warp and woof, no longer a self-reflexive statement. One ≠ one. This kind of trope is totally aberrant, it signifies signifieds that do not coincide with each other.
I’ll now quote from Derrida’s essay The Strange Institution of Literature, “the power that there is, as language or as writing, is that a singular mark should also be repeatable, iterable, as mark. It then begins to differ from itself sufficiently to become exemplary and thus involve a certain generality. The economy of exemplary iterability is itself formalizing… this condensation of history, of language, of the encyclopedia, remains here indissociable from an absolutely singular event, an absolutely singular signature, and therefore also of a date of language, of an autobiographical inscription… Precisely because the trait, date, or signature—in short, the irreplaceable and untranslatable singularity of the unique—is iterable as such, it both does and does not form part of the marked set.” This tension is similar to the resistance Derrida describes in Ulysses Gramophone between the equivocity of language in relation to its univocity. Language constantly resists itself by being in an on-going play between its singular, unique meaning, and a multiplicity, or rather an ambiguity (equivocity) of meanings that relate the historicity of the word or the trope to its signature. A word that is completely univocal is unintelligible, just as is one that is completely equivocal.
(From Ulysses Gramophone: “Il faut bien que quelque lisibilité minimale—un élément d’univocité, resistent à la surcharge de la condensation joycienne pour qu’une lecture commence à avoir lieu./It is necessary that some minimum of readability—an element of univocity—resists the surcharge of Joycian condensation, in order for a reading to begin to take place.)
This is what I have tried to describe as the time of metaphor, as Derrida says, always arriving, “too early” or “too late”: the non-convergence at the center of metaphor that supercedes the genre distinction between literature and philosophy. This resistance is also at play in the contrary movement of language to make reference to itself at the same time that it makes reference to something other than itself. It is likewise there at the crossing of grammar and rhetoric (a connection that allowed me to jump rather rapidly—without being open about it, without saying as much—quite violently, perhaps unjustly from specific statements about metaphor to more generalized statements about language—as Derrida says, faute de temps (lack, or fault of time)).
This movement is brought into further relief time and time again by the techniques unrelentingly at play in the work of both Cixous and Derrida (shelved on two sides of the bookstore): the puns, the displacement of words in repetition, the unweaving and rewriting of their own tropics, of the history of their figures and terms. And this is precisely why Cixous and Derrida are situated respectively at the intersection between literature and philosophy, because of this shared interest in language, the common way of seeing which makes the two indissociable at moments.
Cixous, Hélène and Derrida, Jaqcues. Veils. trans: Bennington, Geoffrey. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2001
Cixous, Hélène. Rootprints; Memory and Life Writing. trans: Prenowitz, Eric. London: Routledge. 1997 p. 79
Cixous, Hélène. “Ville Promises.” Arles. 2004
DeMan, Paul. “Rhetoric of Tropes; Nietzsche.” Allegories of Reading. p. 112.
Derrida, Jacques. “This Strange Institution Called Literature”. Acts of Literature. trans: Bennington, Geoffrey and Bowlby, Anne. New York: Routledge. 1992. p. 42
Derrida, Jacques. Ulysses Gramophone. Paris: Galilée. 1987
This paper was presented as part of the 2010 Conference at UCSC, “Re-imagining the Poet-Critic” organized by.
A longer version of this paper also can be found on Critiphoria.org.
Lily Robert-Foley is the author of Jiji (Omnia Vanitas Review 2016); m, a book of poetry-critique-collage (Corrupt Press, 2013); graphemachine, a chapbook of visual poetry (Xerolage, 2013); the creative annotations for The North Georgia Gazette (Green Lantern Press 2009); Frozen Assets, a work of experimental translations of snowflakes cut from bank loan papers (APR press, 2014); and the Soloflex poem, a poetry blog that asks if poetry can help us lose weight. She is the translator of The Room Under the Willow Tree by Sophie Loizeau (To Press, 2016). She teaches for money.
"The first time I saw Jacques Derrida (it must have been in 1962) he was walking on the crest of a mountain at a rapid and sure pace, from left to right, I was in Arcachon, I was reading (it must have been Force and Signification), from where I was I saw him clearly advancing black on the light sky, feet on the edge, the crest, was blade-thin, clearly traced, he was walking on the peak, from afar I saw him, his progression on the limit between the mountain and the sky melted the one in the other, he must have been following a path no wider than the mark of a pencil tip. He did not run, rapid, he made his way, all the way of the crests."
“Making the language that denies the self into a center rescues the self linguistically at the same time that it asserts its insignificance, its emptiness as a mere figure of speech. It can only persist as self if it is displaced into the text that denies it. The self which was at first the center of the language as its empirical referent now becomes the language of the center as fiction, as metaphor of the self. What was originally a simple referential text now becomes the text of a text, the figure of a figure.”
“On le voit, elle ne voit pas ou elle est. Elle est tellement perdue qu’elle est a la troisieme personne d’elle même, loin de moi et de je.” (“We see it, she does not see where she is. She is so lost that she has become her own third person, far from me and from I.”)
“In the beginning there was myopia, near ignorance, or a kind of ignorance that is based on indeterminacy. At first she has some sight, and navigates her way through her city based on breaks in its ‘refusal’ to her: there is discrepancy between what she sees of the world and what the world is. If this makes her a foreigner to the world, unable to see what others see, it also locates her in a state of constant equivocation or equivocity, ‘To be and not to be were never exclusive.’ The world, her vision, her self, is entrenched in otherness, in complete otherness, in ‘limitless pale nothingness…death.’”