- Series: The Wellek Library Lectures
- Paperback: 162 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press; Later Printing Used edition (April 15, 1994)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0231076592
- ISBN-13: 978-0231076593
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.4 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #678,607 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing Later Printing Used Edition
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"Hilhne Cixous is today, in my view, the greatest writer in what I will call my language, the French language if you like. And I am weighing my words as I say that. For a great writer must be a poet-thinker, very much a poet and a very thinking poet." -- Jacques Derrida
Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing is a poetic, insightful, and ultimately moving exploration of 'the strange science of writing.' In a magnetic, irresistible narrative, Cixous reflects on the writing process and explores three distinct areas essential for 'great' writing: The School of the Dead―the notion that something or someone must die in order for good writing to be born; The School of Dreams―the crucial role dreams play in literary inspiration and output; and The School of Roots―the importance of depth in the 'nether realms' in all aspects of writing.
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Concerning her (first)chapter on the "School of the Dead," Cixous equates "Giving oneself to writing..." to be "...digging...unburying." Her main theme about the School of the Dead is that when an author succumbs to the Art, the Work, s/he dies. Cixous evokes the sense that the work of Art summons the writer and guides his or her 'execution' of the task that calls. Cixous shares a personal sense (based partly on autobiographical moments) that "...the first dead are our first masters." I am reminded that inheritance comes only by death. I sense in this that those who have passed give passages. I think of Gilgamesh who sought [at least symbolic] immortality through writing. Certainly our souls are connected to our ancestors and our psyches to our predecessors, forerunners, exemplars, heralds and other paradigmatic people -- now dead.
Cixous asserts that writing helps us understand our relationship to the dead. She echoes Kafka's words that we need books that affect us like the death of a loved one, that a book must, as she quotes Kafka, "...wake us up with a blow..." and that (as she still quotes Kafka) "...[a] book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us." And Cixous laments that "...[v]ery few books are axes. Very few books hurt us." Again the axe motif. Another aspect of the School of Death she claims is that, "We annihilate the world with a book." She speaks of "...this strange connection between writing and dying..." She calls for "...books that teach us how to die." And she describes reading as "eating on the sly." This is a book filled with plays and ploys. But I feel Cixous succeeds in providing tools for understanding and achieving writing. And this is a book that needs to be mined, to be worked. Fortunately Cixous gives us many clues to the art of reading as well.
Cixous celebrates the integrity of the book -- or of reading, or of writing -- as its own inherent dimension, its own world. She meditates on the "inclination for avowal" which "...is what compels us to write." Cixous avows -- openly declares -- in between moments of intimation that later in the reading of this book, it may turn for you into avowals. She seeks in three places "Pathfinders," and we are thus reminded (through intimation, not avowal) of the axe, of which she frequently speaks. And Cixous then leads us forward to the brink of the second lecture/chapter by calling us "...we who are unfortunately immortal." And these are only some of the themes presented with vivid literary examples in her text and from her lecture.
Cixous moves forward -- really in her terms, downward on her ladder, in the chapter on "The School of Dreams" "in the axe's light," seeking to ..."clear a trail through the forest." Such a vow reminds me of Heidegger's *lichtung,* the "forest clearing." Cixous describes Moses as having come back because he had not discovered the secret, that he did not lose his life on the mountain by looking "...straight at God, [did not] look him in the eye." The "School of Dreams" focuses on Jacob's dream of the ladder of angels(Genesis 28:10-12) and emphasizes that they went not only up but *down.* For Jacob in this event, Cixous writes, "God is in the dream. He is not outside the dream. He is inside the dream." And Cixous asserts that creation is like the dream state. This may explain some of the challenge of even dreaming of summarizing this book: it is written (as it was spoken) in a dream state or at least it works by a dream logic. Thus my examples are personal and few, but I hope representative. After an enchanting section on one's own "magic words" she reminds us, "Love and the axe are inseparable." And yes, after reading Cixous, I have come to recognize the primordial role of the axe in craft, culture, and even in Sufism, where the axe (along with begging bowl and beads) are among the very few objects/tools that Sufi mendicants carry. And as for dreams, Cixous celebrates that "Dreams used to occur in all the great books -- in the Bible, in epic poems, in Shakespeare..."
In the School of Roots, Cixous begins by discussing pleasure and the illicit, the forbidden. Of women Cixous writes of the fear of the power of women -- fear of their birthing and fear expressed in cliterectomes. She begins with birds forbidden in the Bible, birds that are "abominable" (Lev 11:16; Deut 14:15). These forbidden birds descend on prey. So I ask: Does Cixous mean writing is like seizing on prey? Cixous equates birds, women, and writing as transgressive, as "abomination." She writes about roots as meaning a vegetal world, the roots meaning what is in the soil, the soil that gives life and locus to plants. Roots are in the ground, in the country. Here is her ladder's step that involves nature. I wish Cixous had developed the role of nature in writing. Is not our binary consciousness inscribed in the book of nature: day and night, sun and moon, male and female, etc? Through myriad word plays on author's names (e.g., Genet = Je nais; Racine = *racine,* meaning "root," Cixous leads us in this third chapter finally toward the vision of an "apocalyptic text." To Cixous the "apocalyptic text" is "...the "book of the Act of Writing. The book that takes life and language by the roots." Taking life and language by the roots represents an author's overture or engagement. But ultimately (as in her first two chapters) she describes the "apocalyptic text" as "...the book written with us aboard, though not with us at the steering wheel."
I found this a very rewarding read and am still engaged in the process -- and the fundamental question -- of how this affects my own writing -- or how it has or if and how it will. How do we descend on these three steps downward? This review is my virgin attempt to include -- or open myself to -- these three schools on the ladder of writing. Cixous certainly has given me tangible images and motifs that describe the dynamics of the art of writing: the ladder, the ax, the grave, the dream, and roots of life and language that I can, as Augustine heard, "Take up and read," or also "Take up and write." May we be summoned by the "book of the Act of Writing...that takes life and language by the roots." Cixous has issued the call.
Special thanks to my reading partners of our group called "The Bird Papers," Don Socha and Brad Bancroft who helped open the mysteries and meanings of this book.