The Day I Was­n’t There

Hélène Cixoux; Bev­er­ley Bie Brahic, trans.
  • Review
By – April 2, 2012

Hélène Cixous, a French writer of Ger­man- Jew­ish heritage,is fas­ci­nat­ed by pow­er, psy­cho­analy­sis, and lan­guage. In her poet­icprose the abuse of the first leads to the neces­si­ty of the sec­ond and ifthor­ough­ly accom­plished, pro­duces a new way of see­ing and describ­ingthe world, indeed a new lan­guage since one’s exis­tence is so alteredthrough this process. So in Rever­ies of the Wild Woman, theau­thor explores what it was like to be born in a beloved, though­for­eign, land and to live through the process of becom­ing a pari­ah­be­cause of one’s Jew­ish ances­try and because of Algeria’s civ­il war. Her­Muse in this col­lec­tion is the Com­er” who inspires and then removes­the mem­o­ry of a total­i­ty of text, instead explor­ing remem­bered seg­mentsthat cre­ate a new con­text for her mem­o­ries of this child­hood time.Exemplifying this state, the author recounts and ana­lyzes the advent of ayel­low dog with a cat-like face who arrives dur­ing her father’s dying­days. We lock up our own broth­er, for the Dog it is hell…the world istop­sy-turvy and the Dog has been betrayed. Am I Jew­ish, the Dog­won­dered I say…But what does Jew­ish mean won­dered the Dog, and Arab,and dog, friend, broth­er, ene­my, Papa, lib­er­ty noth­ing exists savein­jus­tice and bru­tal­i­ty…” Her moth­er admits to their Jew­ish back­ground­but that is anoth­er Jew­ish history…and not to be repeat­ed in frontof strangers, she says.” There­fore the secret earns her an empow­eringe­d­u­ca­tion where she learns to do bat­tle from a Mus­lim perspective,“…making it incum­bent upon me to take up a crit­i­cal space con­sid­er­ably­larg­er than my dreamy inner space…” But the affect­ed wild woman” can­n­ev­er deny the true iden­ti­ty that has shaped the very rebel­liousessence of the poet seek­ing mean­ing in a world that would anni­hi­late her­re­li­gious and polit­i­cal reality. 

An even more haunt­ing qual­i­ty per­me­ates the entire mem­oir-nov­el, The Day I Wasn’t There,about a child born with Down syn­drome and then aban­doned to a clin­icwhere his grand­moth­er will be his only famil­ial con­tact. The aban­don­ment­par­al­lels the grandmother’s sta­tus as a refugee from Nazi Ger­many. The­moth­er nev­er accepts the lack” of this child, per­haps relat­ed to nev­er­ac­knowl­edg­ing her own Jew­ish back­ground. In both sit­u­a­tions, the moth­er­hides a defect,” defy­ing atten­tive def­i­n­i­tion or love. A mad­con­fi­dence is man­i­fest. Next to the face of her son all the new­born­faces project a sour lit­tle some­thing, a lit­tle line of defense, ascrib­ble, a gri­mace. He is smooth, abstract. As if he hadn’t risen.Pale, as if he hadn’t fin­ished bak­ing.” Anoth­er par­al­lel is made with­the three-legged dog her par­ents gave her, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of theev­er-present loom­ing attempt to under­stand Jews, All thesedis­tinc­tions, says my moth­er, Jews too, they make distinctions…butthey thought only Pol­ish Jews were deport­ed as if they were more Jew­ish­for being Pol­ish and they more Ger­man albeit Jew­ish thus both more and­less Jew­ish at once…But all this depends on how you look at it and issec­ond­hand.” Is there any need to say more? The author’s rage isobvious. 

These pages by Cixous are packed with the hon­esty and­forth­right satire of reli­gious, polit­i­cal, and lin­guis­tic prej­u­di­ceper­me­at­ing Euro­pean and Mid­dle East­ern cul­ture to this day. The lan­guageis intense; the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal, lit­er­ary, and jour­nal­is­tic approach­esare fas­ci­nat­ing in address­ing what real­ly mat­ters about the val­ue oflife, whether one is try­ing to live an obser­vant or non-obser­vant Jew­ish­life any­where in the 21st cen­tu­ry world.

Deb­o­rah Schoen­e­man, is a for­mer Eng­lish teacher/​Writing Across the Cur­ricu­lum Cen­ter Coor­di­na­tor at North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my High School and coed­i­tor of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture: A Library of Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism, Vol. VI, pub­lished in 1997.

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