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Cixous envisions the university as a stage

Hélène Cixous, the third guest lecturer in the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts, garnered a standing ovation from about 275 people who gathered at the Law School's moot court room on March 16 to hear the French writer and playwright discuss the future of the humanities and arts in higher education.

The title of her talk, "Le Pas Sage à l'Université," cannot be translated, she said, because it is a play on words "which cuts a passage through a word . . . to remind you that all that one can hope to think, in a new way, takes place in the interstices of languages."

Exposed to a blend of cultures and languages during her childhood as a Jew in Algeria during the German occupation of France, Cixous has been deeply engaged by the work of writers in several languages, including Arthur Rimbaud, Franz Kafka, Marina Tsvetayeva and Clarice Lispector.

"There is reason to recall what is lost when one is locked in the enclosure of a monolanguage," said Cixous, whose first language is German. "To enjoy the infinite reaches of our emotions, our dreams, our desires, which always surpass the knowledge and possibilities of the self, to grow, advance, explore, feel, taste, we need languages."

At the age of 14, Cixous came across four words that she felt contained "all the magic power, the creative reach not only of the French language, but of every other language and of the world."

At the time, she did not yet understand the meaning behind Rimbaud's poetic sentence, "Je est un autre." Yet the energy captured by the words and the syntax seemed to propel her forward, eventually to the university, in a search of what this "other" meant.

But when Cixous entered the university and questioned her professors, they responded flatly, "There is no response."

"I was twenty-two," she said. "I had walked very quickly for five years in the snow and the mud, without encountering a hint of light or poetry in any of the inhabitants of the academic region. Not a single poet hidden under a suit, under a gown, behind the counter of an office. I had gone toward her, the university, as toward a sublime and nourishing mother, and the sea was frozen and I didn't yet have the quill sharp enough to pierce its crust."

Today, students worldwide are hearing similar negative responses. "They ask for information [and] they are thrown a dry bone to chew," she said. "They are not nourished."

For a student to pass through a university, as opposed to the lobby of "a social enclosure," and enter into life, as opposed to "existence," Cixous argued, "one must be nursed and introduced by a poet."

A poet, she explained, isn't necessarily a writer, in the traditional sense of the word, but someone who awakens or animates the soul. Like all artists, she said, poets are almost always found on the fringes of society.

The best chance for finding a poet within the ranks of the faculty lies within the humanities departments, Cixous said. "These people have not chosen the path of power, of business, of money," she said. "They are workers in the service of textual practices without a great commercial value. If these courageous people let us down most of the time, it is because they began by betraying themselves."

A student's goal should not be knowledge or self-possession, Cixous said. It should be learning how to not know. "I am not celebrating inert and apathetic ignorance," she explained, "but rather the courage to not be content with what is within reach of memorizing, of borrowing or of imitation."

Cixous suggested that the university be conceptualized as a space comparable to theater, where students can explore different roles, perspectives and attitudes, and where the unexpected can happen.

"Every child, whose self has not yet been petrified, wants to do theater, that is, to explore humanity, to go out, to change planets, to be mad, to go see further off who else they could have been at birth," she said.

"The child is right. We all ought to do theater; the instruments of this art are available to all: body, dreams, tears, voice, words, space. And with this art we can personally probe all the secrets of all human destinies, private and political, and taste the fruits of the tree of good and evil with our own mouth."

Imagine the university, then, as a place that offers a silk roof without walls to student-artists who are passing through, Cixous said. Under this canvas is a womb-like stage from which student-artists would take flight.

"All of this is not impossible, it is necessary," she said. "Students are a people living, dreaming, brilliant, with fragile skin. As a people, they have a power of poetical playfulness and a freedom of language that escapes them when they are isolated."


By Marisa Cigarroa

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