Sounding Literature: Music and the Animal Cry in Cixous’s Jours de l’an
Naomi Waltham-Smith is giving a paper as part of a panel on “Sound and Prose” with Jennifer Rushworth (UCL) and Elizabeth Eva Leach (Oxford) at the Society for French Studies annual conference at Royal Holloway.
If there is one recurring theme in Hélène Cixous writings, it is le cri de la littérature. For her, writing is always l’é-CRI-ture. It expresses itself with a shout, a cry, a laugh, a monosyllabic divine yelp, a non-phonemic sound on the margins of human language. This paper examines a number of passages in which Cixous’s prose can be said to be at once metalinguistic and quasi-methodological insofar as it offers remarks and reflections on what makes it possible to write literary prose and on its effects on the writer and the reader. Music is never far away in Cixous’s prose: explicitly in Beethoven à jamais ou l’existence de Dieu, for instance, where it is associated with the breath that supports the authorial voice and that animates writing, and more subtly in Insister de Derrida where she describes the experience of listening in the intimate phone calls they shared with one another. Responding to Derrida’s book on Cixous, H. C. pour la vie, and David Wills’s recent reflections on the breath in their respective theories of writing, I argue, with Cixous, that the sound of writing, even in the process of its deconstruction, cannot be reduced to silence. Having established the framework within which Cixous theorizes the musicality and sonorousness of writing, the remainder of the paper undertakes a close reading of the opening of Jours de l’an where Cixous’s third-person author invokes Celan’s poem “Cello-Einsatz.” Cixous here figures Celan’s poetry as a musical instrument alongside the cello and the oboe, weaving a complex set of threads between melody, authorial inspiration, loss, and the ambivalence she shares with Celan towards the German language, his mother-tongue and her mother’s tongue. The musicality of prose reveals itself in close proximity to the madness of the maternal and hence plays an important role in opening up space for Cixous’s project of an écritureféminine.