reading notes

A difficult apprenticeship: Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, by Hélène Cixous

Three lectures given in May 1990 at the University of California, Irvine.

I’d heard a quote from this book years ago, and the other week I found a copy on the shelf at McNally Jackson, which might have been the first time I’ve seen it in all the intervening years.

The three steps are:

I. The School of the Dead
II. The School of Dreams
III. The School of Roots

Cixous quoting from a letter Kafka wrote in 1904:

But we need the 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 inside us. That is my belief.

And Cixous herself:

The writer has a foreign origin; we do not know about the particular nature of these foreigners, but we feel they feel there is an appeal, that someone is calling them back.

The author writes as if he or she were in a foreign country, as if he or she were a foreigner in his or her own family. We don’t know the authors, we read books and we take them for the authors. We think there must be an analogy or identification between the book and the author. But you can be sure there is an immense difference between the author and the person who wrote; and if you were to meet that person, it would be someone else.

Thinking is trying to think the unthinkable: thinking the thinkable is not worth the effort. Painting is trying to paint what you cannot paint and writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written.

I wonder what kind of poet doesn’t wear out their shoes, writes with their head. The true poet is a traveler. Poetry is about traveling on foot and all its substitutes, all forms of transportation.

Mandelstam wore out hundreds of pairs of shoes. You cannot write such intense, dense poetry without the kind of dance that dances you round the world.

Writing is not arriving; most of the time it’s not arriving.

A dream’s charm is that you are transported into another world; no, you are not transported, you are already in the other world.

In the text, as in dreams, there is no entrance. I offer this as a test to all apprentice-writers: if you are marking time you are not yet there.

Genuine books are always like that: the site, the bed, the hope of another book. The whole time you were expecting to read the book, you were reading another book. The book in place of the book. What is the book written while you are preparing to write a book? There is no appointment with writing other than the one we go to wondering what we’re doing here and where we’re going.

Do we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots?… Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried.