Review of Tomb(e) by Hélène Cixous, translated by Laurent Milesi (Seagull Books, 2014). Distributed by The University of Chicago Press.
By Walter Cummins
What are we to make of prose like this?
Never did I love so powerfully but for dreaming still and dreaming the Dream of Dreams, as if Love killed me in order to give me life, through a marvelous retrospective cancellation of the dantext which I had mistaken for life. I have known the orgasm of the soul which knows no rest until it dies, which makes a single untearable white sheet out of the world and no body then, except the one the earth makes for itself by convulsing the Sex of Gold.
The passage comes near of end of Hélène Cixous’s Tomb(e), in the English translation by Laurent Milesi, but similar writing could be plucked from any of the book’s 250 pages. In fact, many of the paragraphs and sentences go on much longer in their accumulation of images and references.
This is the English version of Hélène Cixous’s first book, initially published in 1973 and republished in France in 2008. Milesi’s translation came out in 2014 as a Seagull Book from the University of Chicago Press. In a prologue written for the new edition, Cixous calls Tomb(e) the foundation of her oeuvre of seventy works of fiction, drama, and essays. She considers it the, “all-powerful-other of all my books.”
The situational core of the book is a retelling of the Venus and Adonis myth from the perspective of a female narrator lamenting and celebrating her love for a male called Dioniris, but really about the struggle between life and loss/Death/Disappearance.
I did capture the ongoing variations of this thematic question, but because Cixous is considered a major figure in contemporary French writing, praised by many, I must admit my failure to grasp the essential substance reveals my own lackings. I’m not up to the challenge. However, a poet friend told me of “feeling baffled by some Cixous book in a class.” We’re two of a kind.
Cixous evokes the work’s complexities in mythic prose. Her translator, Milesi, explains the challenge of creating an English version of her French, which is replete with polysemy, homonymy, and homophony. He calls the narrative “an infinite orchestration of ever-combining motifs” and compares the experience of reading Tomb(e) in the original French with that of reading Finnegans Wake in English. The reader must “become the memory of the text as it retells itself,” admitting that achieving such a condition is unattainable with an English version.
For me, reading was the equivalent of being carried along by the incantatory urgency of cumulative sentences, even-in-English language, verbal equivalents of John Coltrane’s sheets of sound. The motifs are repeated again and again, but with evocative variations rather than redundancy, achieving a totality that could also be called “A Love Supreme.”
While I return to Coltrane again and again, I’m not sure about Cixous. But then I’ve never gotten past the first few pages of Finnegans Wake. Still, even to fail at these challenges expands us as readers, revealing limitations to overcome.
Top photo, of Hélène Cixous, is by Olivier Roller. Second photo, of John Coltrane, photographer unknown.