When I was at university for the first time, I developed a (mostly) intellectual crush on the French writer, Hélène Cixous. Today, two decades later, I searched for a couple of quotations of hers, blessing the internet for allowing me to search for a mere handful of words and be plunged back into the feeling I had when I first read them. Cixous is a philosopher, an art theorist, who writes more like a poet: fearless, unbounded. Once again, I am drenched in her voice.
“When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love” From ‘Laugh of the Medusa/ Rire de la Meduse’
She is best known for her literary feminism; for her assertion that a woman’s writing is inherently different from a man’s. Our experience, our ways of being in and relating to the world are gendered by our bodies and by our cultural conditioning. Her own work reads like an ocean coming in all at once: hallucinatory, powerful, inescapable.
“I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst – burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed.” From ‘Laugh of the Medusa/ Rire de la Meduse’
Idiomatically, this translates as ‘Treat your own language as if it were a foreign language.’ But literally it commands: ‘May your tongue remain a stranger to you.’ To a young British woman writing in and about French as a foreign language [une langue étrangère], this phrase became a talisman. It still surfaces in my thoughts whenever I am searching for a way to make visible the filters of my experience. It is a key into mindfulness and mantra for meditation.
How are our thoughts shaped by the language that speaks them? How do those thoughts shape us? When you live between two languages, there are gaps on either side: entire concepts that do not translate. Theo-in-French is not the same person as Theo-in-English. Oddly, once I left France, those differences only increased. Now, when I speak French for any length of time, beyond the fuzzy feeling of fading vocabulary and incomplete grammatical pathways, I feel myself brought up hard against the thought forms and perspectives of my 25 year old self. I feel like I am speaking with her mind as well as her voice. It is not entirely comfortable.
Hélène Cixous once wrote that before she was even a woman, she was first and foremost a myopic, and it is this second, half-remembered quotation, source-less and lost, that has stayed with me across the years.
“Avant elle n’etait pas une femme d’abord elle etait une myope c’est-à-dire une masquée”
Searching for it, I came across a more recent piece of hers: her account of the emotional, transformative experience of corrective eye surgery; and the resulting loss of and nostalgia for her myopia.
“She hadn’t realized the day before that eyes are miraculous hands, had never enjoyed the delicate tact of the cornea,the eyelashes,the most powerful hands, these hands that touch imponderably near and far-off heres. She had not realized that eyes are lips on the lips of God.” From ‘Savoir‘
How we see the world intimately effects our relationship to it. I am not quite as myopic as Hélène was; who writes of the shock of seeing the whole of her face at once for the first time, with her own eyes. But there are still two distinct ways I relate to the world. Through the veil of lenses or glasses, I can pretend to see as others see, marvelling in the clarity of shape and line; the immediacy of sign and symbol. Age 7, when I first walked out of the opticians with my glasses on, I could read the signs over the shop doorways for the first time and realised this was how adults knew what door to enter; what direction to take. I had learnt to read very early, and knew no fear of words that I couldn’t read. Words could either be understood or not, but they could always be read. That day what was revealed to me meant I could finally read the adult, social world for the first time, as if a communal secret had been shared.
Another myopic once told me how, with his first pair of glasses, he realised that leaves grew on trees. He knew what leaves were, but trees were fuzzy green things from a few feet up, and no-one had thought to explain that the two were related. These experiences of finding out fundamental truths that others find self-evident are formative, deep and powerful.
Without my glasses, I slowly, subtly begin to relax. Something is lifted. I am more child-like, more unpredictable, and somehow 7 years old again. But even with them, I relate to the world as a myopic. Tiny things delight me. I am both aware of the chaotic flows of information and communication as a general background; and obsessive about small details that catch my eye. I can be very single-minded. Things are either clear or fuzzy; near or far to me. A single leaf can fill my world. But my sight is fragile. One small accident and I become incapable of crossing a road unaided. Like many severe myopics, I am also hyper-sensitive to changes in my visual processing. Tiny inconsistencies in the translation from prescription to a new set of glasses can give me a blinding headache. Even though with glasses on I have perfect near, distance, colour and perspective vision, I can never take my vision for granted. Any vision of part of the world that I cannot hold in the palm of my hand is inherently precious. Anything I can hold in my hand, is inherently intimate.
And learning this was the cue to a lifelong journey exploring the intimate relationship between myself and the world, where in every moment my self, and my world, and the language we both speak, is changing. This morning I begin to bleed. It changes who I am; pulls me back from the I that has a schedule and follows the signs, to the I that can spend ten minutes marvelling at the water stain on the ceiling. There is an inevitability about the pull, and a minor ritual to follow: changing my physical practice; cancelling or altering plans to allow as much space and time as possible to dive into these first, precious hours.
I’m writing this longhand first, to minimise my contact with the square edges and precise keystrokes of my laptop. Instead, I shall grab my phone as camera and go wandering for the perfect photos to accompany this post. Today, more than any day, I am aware of speaking to you with the tongue of a stranger. My world is bright and full of colour, and all the clocks and diaries seem to have gone missing. How does your world look today? What language is it speaking?