'We Defy Augury' by Hélène Cixous: Excerpt

We Defy Augury moves easily from Hélène Cixous’s Algerian childhood, to Bacharach in the Rhineland, to, eerily, the Windows on the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center, in the year 2000. This unique experience, which could only have come from the pen of Cixous, is now available in English, and readers are sure to delight in this latest work by one of France’s most celebrated writer-philosophers.

Translated from the French by Beverley Bie Brahic

An Excerpt

The 2020s—they were already on our mind the 20s twenty years ago yesterday, we were walking alongside Ground Zero, you were full of fear.

If there are no more months, no years, fall with its red-vermilion-flecked yellow wings remains, as if there were but one eternal season for love’s re-beginnings. The same fall a year ago in Manhattan, the Holy City lost its beautiful teeth, we were heartsick, always the same warning you say, no need to write a poem,

I’m grimacing because I left my hat in the taxi, I can always get another one, I can’t get another one

Will we meet again twenty years from now in the New World as usual in this one? you ask. The world on the serpent’s back? I say. Or in another, I say, the one that I arrive in, I forget if it’s by train or car, the land of your prehistory? The strange paradise that death does not enter. This fall with its red-flecked-yellow wings was in 2002, and in twenty years we would be saying how young we were in 2001 and how we can still imagine it, you were, as always, fearful, we were off to the Towers of horn and ivory and the streets shivered a little as we went by. It is desire’s nature to occupy the entire landscape. Let us once again walk up Time’s Fifth Avenue.

I am out walking with my son, out walking with Isaac, one can perfectly well be present on several levels at once, in the diverse seconds of October’s forever melancholy mood, seconds whose staying power is incalculably deep

You’ve lost your hat? It’s not the first time, remember? Already in Chicago, while I was losing Thea, the endless draining of all my bloods, the workmen with their Day-Glo butterfly-yellow-and-orange vests printed with big letters, 2001 was weeping and there’d be twenty years of weeping death unto death, and now I am out walking in 20 with my son. He asks if I have news of you.

No, I say, it’s strange, but despite the weather I always think of you between six and midnight; between midnight and dawn I wait for you; I still love you, my only love. Excuse me a moment, I tell my son, there’s something I have to do, it’s urgent: suddenly, an absolute need to call you right now, after all these years. Here? Right this minute.

The need consumes all of the All. What will you say? You think I’ve forgotten you? Have I forgotten you my lonely love, I have my life, I have someone else? Him? But he’s my son!—That’s not a reason!—Is! Isn’t! Love loves you alone. Could I forget, my only love, to love thee. Have I forgot my only love have I forgotten? Love loves you alone my only lonely love, felled by time’s axe; can I cease loving my only love, I still feel the sad happiness of having been so happy at the hour misfortune struck. Have I forgot the unforgettable?

Times passes, alas, and I’ve forgotten your number. I think I remember, I try, I dial, where are you? At home? At work? At the Palace? At the New School? I thrust two fingers down the throat of my memory and grope, it’s not easy, I think I feel a 4 or 9 or 6. It’s ringing, I hear a voice, oh! Yes, that’s your voice down there, speaking to a disciple, I hear your clear, young voice. But I didn’t dial the number right, you don’t hear me, I’m going to shout, you’re going to push me away, you left me, my scars healed, I got used to life without you, but one word and the awful love returns like a tornado, I want my life back, ah! If you leave me again I couldn’t bear the pain, I am in flames and terror, my son is waiting, I am out of time. Shall I stop calling him? All these years and I’m still so scared of a mortal rejection. How long does the flight of a Paris–New York dream-balloon last, so light so strong, so frail? You are so close, I am in a blaze of pain, frantically I search for Isaac’s number, a dozen times I thumb through my contacts, finally I find a whole line of I’s, but no, they are train times, not a single phone number in the lot, and egged on by despair I decide to see if my fingers remember what my tongue does not, and that’s when the communication is established, but cut off, too late, you have left, and chagrin utters a scream that pierces space to find you down there in the bottom of the dream. This scream is so loud it rips the dream’s envelope and drops my eviscerated self onto the sandy shore like a gutted fish. Long after waking, the cry is still crying like a fool at large in the deserted air. Such suffering! I hurt all over, I take a Doliprane, I don’t sleep. Never before has a dream kidnapped my day. In broad daylight I have crossed to the other side

No, Isaac didn’t leave you, Waking says; he is dead, that’s why it’s been years since you called him, whereas all you had to do to get to the other side was dial his number. The address is in The Odyssey, Canto XI, in the place Circe told you, on the Ocean’s edge, at dawn in Aquitaine.

I need help. I call my daughter: a dream seized me like an eagle, I say. She listens, with sympathy. Returns to what she was doing. I call my son. —Like a falcon, I say. —I can’t talk. Is it urgent? —No, I say. It’s a blessing.

The cruelest Dream. And yet a blessing: this storm of reality, this searing pain that bears your name, this violent survival of the dead, this City cast in the fire, how not to celebrate it? Perhaps a book began like that? With an upheaval?

The book is called Fête. Do you like it, I say? —Fate? —Exactly. Fête Fate.

Neither memory nor forgetfulness, I suffer from a fit of absence of world, time becomes intermittent, a month can pass without me without him without him coming to see me in a dream, then the desert ending finally, he returns, I was on the point of us dying, you are tired and ill after your fatal accident, you are handsome and quieter than usual, I hope you aren’t annoyed, I haven’t been able to call you, one of us was cut off, nothing has changed, do you have time? Have you a few days before the dream ends? We could spend an hour together: in the cinema’s cellars. But have we the right? If cinema is written si n’aima, you whisper. We have a right to the ruses of the great divided. Were it not for literature, the sick-unto-death would not have survived their Tristia. Impossible to bear so much death without insurmountable hardship, this is Nature’s law. And the almost dead touch each other, kiss, after so much fasting of course you look bewildered, but all I have to do is sit myself down in front of you, plunge my eyes into yours, connect your extinguished gaze, you light up, you smile, you recognize me, I take you in my arms, I press my lips to your forehead, you say nothing, dead, remembering.

A month goes by: no me no you no memory no forgetting then you come as if we had seen each other only yesterday. A yesterday that was anxious, nervous, tormented by nameless apprehensions, like dogs haunted by threats of death.

—Spaghetti? asks my daughter. Astonished.

—Spaghetti. A large serving. A big bowl. Pasta, et nada.

Had they hoped for a taste of joy it didn’t happen. A little further along, their enormous grief awaited them. This was to be their final fête, though they didn’t know it. Or maybe someone had an inkling, but who? But what? How to explain the aura that brooded over the table, I said to my son, maybe death was already with us in the Italian restaurant, the guest you can’t shake off, a long time before the death, death turns up uninvited, secretes this awkwardness that explains the gloom in the room? Or could it be that the act of commemoration drops a veil over the scene years after it took place? I see them seated at a small round table with a big white tablecloth. No one else in the room? No one. It’s strange. In Manhattan, near Gramercy Park. Had everyone been warned about the disquieting Presence, and fled, or maybe The Tale only had eyes for its hostages?

Spaghetti. In the aftermath I will never forget the last bowl, a large portion. I will forget the rest. Or rather I’ll forget everything except for the spaghetti. Over time it has swelled and swelled. It has a secret life. The restaurant bathed in darkness. It really exists. It is empty. I have proof: I have the card in my Persian notebook. The name Sal Anthony across a sea of forget-me-not clouds, a bowl of pasta for the gods. So they knew, the gods. I said: ‘It exists.’ Perhaps it too is dead, the restaurant with its immortal dreams. It’s the fate of all the places we went when we weren’t yet able to divine the auguries. Perhaps we didn’t want to?

It comes to me that if all these places, hotels, restaurants, airports, cities and castles, oceans are also dead, it is not that a hostile destiny seeks to efface all our traces on this earth. Rather, the spirits that gave life to these scenes that were our tender allies have accompanied us to the secret present of the Other Side.

Afterwards, the Tale notes, she had trouble eating pasta. She feels as if she is taking food from his mouth. It’s his spaghetti. Just before the hunger ends.

—The day I will be able to say why I don’t write, my son says, I will be able to say why you do write, and this day being effaced I’ll be effaced along with it, a thought and a certitude that transport me, my son says. —Madness, I say. But whose?

The idea of effacement unhinges me; I fear She’ll rob me of my memory, Miss Insidious, whom I don’t see, this shadow that, not being here yet, is all the more terrifyingly here and, word by word, raids my life and debits my brain. Mockingly she pilfers from me, a thief according to the law of anythinggoes. I am pillaged, of trinkets. If only she raided ‘Victor Hugo’ but she robs me of the moniker of that celebrity, notoriously bewitching to men but whose blonde charm leaves me indifferent, does nothing for me but whose seizure promptly gives her the glamour of a tabloid titbit.

There’s a Shadow. I don’t see it. I don’t sense it. It’s a hypothesis. It’s a sickness. An artful sickness, a poisoning of the powers of the imagination. Ever since death deprived me, in part, of Isaac, of his external self, I fear being infected by the sickness of fear. From this I deduce that Isaac was my invulnerability, thus my vulnerability, my mental armor, thus my lack of steel-plating. I fear losing the formula for immortality. Isaac believed I had the formula, therefore I had it.

Belief is what it takes to keep life alive.

All it takes is an accident, a breakdown of belief, a second’s inattention, a nano-second, and Paradise is Lost, between one second and the next my mother let go. Perhaps my belief was broken. Perhaps the penultimate minute had been poised for a while.

What scares me is not knowing the exact hour of the last minute. Next week I might take a tumble in the staircase. I’ve tripped on a step, the cat Philia was underfoot, rather than killing her I flung myself against the wall, and that’s how I lost my life. Death by cat, why not, that’s one way. Or my hands desert me. It all began with the little finger of my left hand. The pianist on paper’s fingers are numb. I expected to go blind. The Shadow attacks where you least expect it. Death nips at my hands. Might my hands kill me this summer? ‘One may very well die before death.’ One writes this sentence without trembling. Or perhaps with trembling. Perhaps it is more deeply more secretly true than one thinks. Shall we play? Still the heart feels tight under the T-shirt. I have survived my Isaac-death for ten years. Yet it nipped my throat, and dragged me out of the world.

There must be a good reason why, when one has left life behind, one returns, lifeless, to live on, at least for a while, as happened to Kriemhild, after she’d spent two days and two nights on the other side dead alongside the beloved cadaver. Without the bottomless need for vengeance to lift her from her grief, she would never have come back. Extreme suffering made her despair even of death. A violent need for vengeance is stronger than the need for rest.

It came to me yesterday that this entire book revolved around our Towers. I was in the mother house, in Arcachon, as if in New York. Cheek to cheek with Paradise. Thus very close to New York. In other words, very close to hell and its fires. Consequently, hoping for resurrection.

That’s how it goes in my Providence.

Each time we resuscitate, the entire play resuscitates, Manhattan is also Oran, and then Osnabrück via Jerusalem, and the Arcachon bridge, all the places where fear began to lay siege to love, and the fire started

When I am in Manhattan, I am as close to Heaven as when I am writing in Arcachon.

When I am writing, everything is in the present. Time follows me.

It’s not I who write, it is my special providence, Almighty Writing. She remembers me when I forget. She wakes me up before it’s time, I haven’t finished reading my dream when I hear her and all her birds singing, one after another, the whole chorus, right away I am ravished and convinced, I believe them, they guide me, no one will make me change my mind, I say yes to the thrush followed by the redbreast followed by the blue tit, I’m coming, I’m coming, wait for me. This is the moment when the dead are released, separation’s truce, what a relief, and everyone is fine as usual, Mama, my father, the eternal beloved, my children, my animal incarnations; of course, our special dispensation is somewhat fragile but for the moment we shine forth, and Mama really is astir in her room. This is reality, what responds without fail to the birds’ telephone. It is the same time it was an hour ago, to my right Hamlet and Horatio whisper, I know each word—they are Isaac’s words. Not that he is their author. Montaigne too is murmuring at his window. Just lean towards the chink in the wall on the west side of his room and you’ll hear them exhaled among the trees of the domain. And for each person each time it’s the same mystery that nourishes the same thought: how not to forget to exercise one’s freedom, how to cultivate the life after life. One can cross to death’s far side: each person must rise to the challenge.