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« Everything starts with fire »
— Interview with Hélène Cixous
Hans Ulrich Obrist
translated by Sophia Millman
09 April 2024
published in Issue Five

Hélène Cixous (born 1937) is a French-Algerian writer and philosopher. Transgressing the limits of academic language by and with poetic language, she is widely lauded for her experimental writing style, her experimental practice, and for developing new models of education. Her influential essay « Le rire de la Méduse » exemplifies her concept of écriture feminine and informs her advocacy for the freeing of writing — and for the freeing of the self through writing. In 2023 she published the novel Incendire; Qu’est-ce qu’on emporte (Éditions Gallimard), which opens with the forest fire that chased her out of her home in the Bay of Arcachon.

Hans Ulrich Obrist has collaborated with Hélène Cixous for many years, on interviews as well as a Serpentine Marathon in London. The conversation below took place in the summer of 2023, as part of the Engadin Art Talks (special thanks to Cristina Bechtler and the Engadin Art Talks team).

In an earlier conversation with Olivier Zahm and Donatien Grau, when asked about your childhood in Algeria, you answered that you were « a mass of continents, contradictions, compatible incompatibilities. » You were born in Algeria and describe yourself as « the result of the history of the world at a very specific era: an era rife with violence, promises, hope and despair. » Could you begin by addressing this theme?

I will begin by saying that, when I was asked this question, a thought immediately crossed my mind: l’espoir[hope] is something I am not familiar with. You use the word espoir and not espérance. Essentially, we already face a linguistic problem. Espérance does not refer to the same thing as espoir. I believe that in German, only one word expresses these two realities. In French, we have two words; something intervenes that distinguishes them and demonstrates that espoir and espérance are not at all the same. In French, espérance refers to a virtue. It is said to be a theological freedom: hope, faith, charity — these are Christian emotions. Espoir is something else entirely. When I think about it, when I was little in Algeria, I gave up all hope. I neither expected nor hoped for anything from this country consumed by demons, hatreds and racisms. And, very young, I told myself that it was a country I had to flee, which I did. I thought only of that, and as soon as I turned eighteen, I fled, because I had no hope. That’s very important. Espérance, really, is a state. Later on in my life, I asked myself: have I hoped? And if so, what for? Then, a very important question arose: that of expectation. Because in French and, more generally, in Romance languages, we use the word esperanza, which refers to the idea of expectation — an idea much less present in Hoffnung, where there is no expectation, where one is already in another world.

Yet, in German, Hoffnung and Zuversicht refer to two distinct ideas...

Zuversicht is something else: it is what moves, it is the driving force of espoir. We cannot imagine experiencing espoir without Zuversicht. There must be an act of faith, that is, one must believe, and there must be trust. In retrospect, I have come to the conclusion that when I was a child, I did not believe. I did not believe that Algeria would one day have the chance to reach some kind of ideal, based on freedom of thought, the desire to progress, or even when you look at ecology, that sort of thing. When I take a look at my existence, which is very old, I do not believe I have truly felt much Espoir — perhaps urgency, at most.

On the other hand, I cannot deny knowing espoir because, first, everyday language is infused with it. We allude to it constantly, for example when we say, « J’espère bien » ( « I hope so »). Fundamentally, this means that humans cannot exist without this temporal dimension; a future must necessarily be envisioned. But in that case, is it hope or simple rationality? I am firmly convinced that humanity will continue on its path. Although the risk that it may completely destroy itself is real, I do not believe that will happen — which should not stop us from trying to do better. But there are indeed threats, and I take them very seriously. I return to this idea at length in Incendire.

There are times when we can legitimately say, for example in Algeria, that we cannot do better — that there is nothing to be done. When I see the situation between Ukraine and Russia, I think that for now and for a long time to come — maybe a century, maybe two — we cannot espérer for better. These are all refinements, nuances that we accumulate and insert in the overall image of espérance. As an individual, as an absolute singularity, there are moments when one can allow oneself to espérer, but that’s not at all my style.

Before we talk about Incendire in more detail, could you talk about fire, since that’s what the book opens with? During our last conversation, you told me that literature begins with war and war begins with fire. I’m thinking of my last conversation with Agnès Varda when I asked her a question about her projects that had not come to fruition. She told me that she would have liked to create an installation called « Feu Madame Cinéma. » She said that, when it comes down to it, cinema also starts with fire. What do you make of that?

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« The home of Ucalegon is already burning closeby. »

Incendire is a portmanteau, a combination of incendie, which translates as « fire », and dire: « to say ».

A portmanteau of animal and mot (« word »).

Max and Moritz: A Story of Seven Boyish Pranks, is a classic German children’s story in rhyming verse, first published in 1865.

A popular children’s instrument similar to a kazoo.

This quotation from Racine suggests that it is necessary to conserve energy or provisions in order to achieve difficult goals.

A combination of « identity », « entity » and « ni » (neither).