Hypertextualist Michael Joyce on Alexandra Grant, Hélène Cixous, and Carolyn Guyer | KCET
Hypertextualist Michael Joyce on Alexandra Grant, Hélène Cixous, and Carolyn Guyer
In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.
Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest is a multi-faceted project by Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant encompassing a series of public drawing sessions, reading groups, artist collaborations and an installation at 18th Street Arts Center.
As part of KCET's mapping of Los Angeles artist Alexandra Grant's interdisciplinary and collaborative project "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest," Grant has invited writer Michael Joyce to create an innovative piece of writing about the project. Joyce is known as the pioneer of hypertext fiction, which means that in the late 1980's he was using the newly invented internet as a place to write fictions that were non-linear, moving forward and backward according to each readers' choosing. Grant and Joyce have collaborated for many years, he writing original texts or scores for her to use as the basis for her paintings and drawings which have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) among others. A long-time fan of the French writer and philosopher Hélène Cixous's writing and teaching -- Cixous wrote the afterward to Joyce's book "Moral tales and meditations" in 2001 -- it was Joyce who introduced Cixous and Grant recognizing that she too was a "Cixousian." Joyce's contribution below is two-part, first an introduction to Cixous's work "Philippines" and the central role that book plays in Grant's "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest," and the second part an original work of fiction around the central theme of the exhibition, the "perfect other." In "Une meditation isomorph," Joyce's "perfect other" is his wife, the artist Carolyn Guyer, whose work is also included here.
From Michael Joyce:
I am asked to write about Alexandra Grant, about Hélène Cixous, about Carolyn Guyer. The occasions are different and the same. "Would you mind then" -- Alexandra requests -- "in addition to this meditation on the Fôret, also writing a more didactic piece, connecting the dots? How you introduced me to Cixous, why Cixous' work is important to you and for artists, and then yes, the imagery of the forest...why it's important to share dreams, to be telepathic, to collaborate. Even touching on the idea of the gift without expectation of return."
I do not mind this, or I do but in a way we do not use the verb, and yet which I think about as Cixousian. I mind this in the sense of putting it in mind, in the same way, say, that I put Alexandra's Fôret Interieure/Interior Forest and Cixous' "Philippines" in mind as I wrote the meditation that follows, keeping these two women and their not-so-separate arts there like twinned almonds whose nested shapes scribe a valentine in the mandorla; the latter the selfsame figure that Carolyn -- whose childhood story the meditation tells -- together with another woman, herself a twin, Martha Petry -- Carolyn my wife, Martha my once wife and mother of our children -- fashioned and called the visual design for the long-ago hypertext digital fiction they wrote together, transforming mandala into mandorla, the almond eye of Shakti, the two-prowed sacred boat, the yoni, the divine female orifice.
I do not-mind, I mind, in the sense of the satipatthana, the mindfulness -- of body, feelings, mind, and mental objects -- that form the foundation and presence of all creation. "Philippine is me is you!"--Cixous writes in "Philippines" -- "You know the rite. The fate. An enchanted almond. It contains the worlds in its shell...Those mothers who conceal the soft, sweet child. The outer almond resists the hasty predator, says Plato. This is how desire is kept alive, through the toughness of the approach. The inner almond has the shape of a delicate oval which is used as a model and a reference to what is beautiful: a sea shell, a pearl, the lover's [amante] eyes, everything that resembles a sublime tear is almond-shaped. Even Christ in glory, even the Virgin, are entrusted to the soft oval frame of an almond. The Virgin herself in the mandorla shines softly as a mystical almond." 1
The soft oval portrait puts me in mind of the evangelist Luke, cantor of the incarnation, chronicler of the story of Bethlehem, he who is said to have been the first painter of icons, particularly those devoted to representing the Virgin and Child, who wrote in his version of the parable of the gatekeeper that to whom much is given much is asked. It seems to me, despite his matrilineal inclination, that what Luke records is an inhospitable admonition, a patrimonial gift that charges its recipient to constantly weigh what is given against what is asked.
In "Coming to Writing" Cixous writes of something quite its opposite, the maternal gift, the wordless source of our language: "So this is why, how, who, what, I write: milk. Strong nourishment. The gift without return. Writing, too, is milk. I nourish. And like all those who nourish, I am nourished. A smile nourishes me. Mother I am daughter: if you smile at me, you nourish me, I am your daughter. Goodnesses of good exchanges." 2
"Philippines" explores the manifold goodnesses of good exchanges, seeking the place beyond the gate -- au-dela de la grille, beyond the prison bars of mere inscription -- where the lucid dreamer clambers up the ladder rungs that passing lights momentarily imprint upon the ceiling of the child's bedroom at night, arriving beyond the gate in the magical space where the garden begins.
The meditation that follows means to slip through these bars as well. Its story is true, not only how stories are true in the way of a true line drawn by a painter's hand, but as something that flows truly as a gift from my beloved, Carolyn, and where I am asked nothing but to take it, unbidden and unburdened, for what it is. What Cixous calls "the velvety hull" of the almond -- the womb the mother keeps her child safely within -- in this version of the story transforms instead to become the velvety conjoint carapace of motherdaughter, the blue crab of Maryland where the meditation is set. As such it is meant to become a story of "Mother I am daughter," that is, of the philippine itself, the cradling mandorla of the motherdaughter, the story of language inextricably tangled, imbricated, in the weblike tendrils of the world beyond, wherein the araignée de mère "has the knack of barging in at the most decisive moments, as if umbilical communication were never interrupted" (48), until, after some time, the daughter comes to "appreciate her connections of an additional line" (49).
In "Coming to Writing" Cixous writes of how she came to savor this connection, the line that barges in and holds us: "I was raised on the milk of words. Languages nourished me. I hated to eat what was on a plate. Dirty carrots, nasty soups, the aggression of forks and spoons. 'Open your mouth.' 'No.' I let myself be fed only by voice, by words. A deal was made: I would swallow only if I was given something to hear." 3
Carolyn, like Alexandra, a visual artist, would eat only if she were given something to see; even now she claims she cannot learn a new word in another language unless she has it before her in both eye and ear. From the first her mother fed her alfabeto, the tiny pasta in the shape of letters, stringing them out in a constellation, a milky way upon the tray of the chaise-haute bébé, just as, in this story, she later laced a garland of letters across a blank sheet of newsprint spread upon a little table. The letters upon tray and sheet became for Carolyn as familiar and animate as the spiders and ants along the forest floor where she and her mother would walk hand in hand. And so when a face appeared among the forms of the letters that she had come to recognize as real beings in the world, she was confused and did not recognize herself. So, too, when she grew into adolescence it was into that Southern Maryland fôret that she retreated to read, sitting there for hours, held in the arms of a tree.
"And my trees!"-- Cixous writes of the garden at the heart of Philippines -- "My slim, elegant acacias, my first loves, my magnolias, my madly seducing mimosas, my half-loving half-words, they stretch out their arms to me, my arms, my trees, my young odorous orpheuses from Oran" (66).
Voices from the motherdaughter world, from that fôret, bid me to write about these three women. Or if that is too fantastical an explanation -- "One cannot give proofs of the dreamingtrue," Cixous writes. "Or of telepathy. Since it takes place inside in the inner foreign country" (72) -- rather say then that, in my minding of that world where much was given but nothing asked of me, the world of Hélene Cixous and Alexandra Grant, I was given to writing. What I am asked is a gift of presence, not a gift that requires something in return, but what I am given to. I mean this phrase in the way that the poet Robert Creeley uses it:
I'm given to write poems. I cannot anticipate their occasion...I cannot anticipate the necessary conclusions of the activity, nor can I judge in any sense, in moments of writing, the significance of that writing more than to recognize that it is being permitted to continue. I'm trying to say that, in writing, at least as I have experienced it, one is in the activity.
I am in the midst of rereading the stories of three women in terms of one other. "Philippines" tells of rereading (re: reading) in several ways: "It is in the middle of the garden of the book" -- Cixous writes -- "during the fine hours of an afternoon. I was unreading the Book which makes me cry. I had passed very often by those chapters. The word has been there. I was not looking for it. As always it responded to my desire even before that desire came to consciousness...If I had looked for it, I would not have found it. It found me" (19).
The word that found her, despite her "fateful, almost neurotic incapacity to give the name" (18), instead gives itself to become the eponymous title of "Philippines," springing up "with the piercing authority of an arrow" (19), in the midst of a story that makes her cry, George du Maurier's "Peter Ibbetson:" "The reality of our close companionship, of our true possession of each other" -- du Maurier writes -- "was absolute, complete, and thorough...Although each was, in a way, but a seeming illusion of the other's brain, the illusion was no illusion for us. It was an illusion that showed the truth, as does the illusion of sight. Like twin kernels in one shell ('Philipschen,' as Mary called it), we touched at more points and were closer than the rest of mankind (with each of them a separate shell of his own)."5
Philippine is me is you. Philippine, c'est moi c'est toi. mimoi mitoi minou [me-you miaow, Laurent Milesi translates]. Rereading begins as what in English is called a reduplicative, i.e., stuttering are's -- erring perhaps would be a franglaisian pun -- like chitchat, kittycat, nightnight, no-no, bye-bye, mommy, maman. Toi being the mother's murmur, the latter a word itself reduplicative; moi being at first the name of Ma.
There is no rereading that is not all at once new. What Alexandra does, what she's doing here, ce qu'elle fait ici, is rereading of that sort, a sort of are'ing, a simultaneity and synchronicity of being, that she and I discussed once some years ago in Central Park near Poets' Walk where the great elm trees reach out their arms across the sky like the acacias in the garden at Oran, interlacing like the forest of letters the mother draws in my isomorphic meditation of Southern Maryland. We sat there, Alexandra and I, like Mimsey and Gogo, the sister and brother characters in "Peter Ibbetson," talking about what happens when she transforms language into image, an invitation to enter into reduplication that she now extends to all who enter this Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest at the 18th Street Arts Center or its twin at Mains d'Oeuvres:
AG: I was just thinking of...the implication of lasting.
MJ: There's that kind of duration, a lastingness that is not the lastingness of history, but the way that a harmonic stays in your ear while another note is sounded. That is central to our collaboration. What is the relation between the language and the visuals here? There has to be some sort of lastingness that is that kind of durational interplay, harmonic interplay. Remember when the English professor came to your studio and, aghast, asked me, "What do you feel about what has happened to your words?" I was puzzled, because I could see them there, lasting. Not lasting like "okay, you can read this" in the same way as if you have a text of mine in hand, but a duration that is fundamental to any kind of textuality. How readers don't remember very much verbatim from even the greatest novels, but there's a lasting, a duration of your knowing something that is outside of the details of language.
AG: I do get asked about that, about the loss of being able to read your text, about the total transformation of your words.
MJ: Which never troubles me at all. I think the text is utterly there. It's, as you say, "held in trust." We came with the language and we linger on the word. We've both decided it was the right language. I'm giving you something and you took it. And Hélène, whom we both now admit was somehow at the center of this...for her that's the core thing: the gift without return. Here's the language, I say, and you give me -- and the world -- back the images.
AG: So a second sense of time in our collaboration is synchronicity. What does it mean to be in "synchronicity," to be at the same time?
This, too, is the lasting question of "Philippines," the text that Alexandra now proposes not just to hold in trust but to invite you to enter into through these twinned, trans-Atlantic installations. Installations that attempt -- just as do both this essay and meditation of mine -- to reread and reduplicate not, one might say, that mythical garden of separation, division, and passing called Eden, but instead the gardens of the "Philippines," the two-in-one of mandorla, not Eden but idemeadum, the garden of shehe, where -- Cixous writes -- "One is oneself the lost child, the orphan, the one without roots, the hostage of a forgetting, of an arrested memory" (36).
It is to there where at end Cixous calls us: "Let's return" -- H.C. writes at the start of "Philippines" -- "revenons...'Revenons' will be my first word. As long as I shall live, and even more perhaps. Let's return to our starting point. [Revenons à notre point de départ]" (1).
How to be both at the beginning and at the end is a question of twinning and telepathy alike, and so it is that Cixous writes, "when I started 'writing' this text, I thought it was called Telepathic Garden or Lethepatic Garden" (18), she having in mind --minding -- the doubled gardens that, like Mimsey and Gogo, she and "Pete," her brother-partner in "postnatal twinship," explored in childhood and again later in rêverie télépathique. These doubled gardens of the Cercle Militaire in Oran and the Jardin d'Essai in Algiers each becoming lastingly, synchronically, what Freud's contemporary, the Czech psychiatrist Arnold Pick, mislabeled as delusional; that is the "reduplicative paramnesia" which insists that belief that a place can exist in two or more places, say imagetext, simultaneously.
They can, they do. You only have to enter here to know.
"The more I dream" -- Cixous writes -- "the more I allow myself to dream/to be dreamt, the more dreams come to me. It is the same for the trees which stretch out their arms to us...those so powerfully powerless arms, which only wait for a glance to cry out a name to call me, are mine, it is the little one -- the child who was happy and who is the keeper of happiness in my ruins, who holds them out to me. Here's the gate. An avenue goes. The intense humming of insects and of light. Careful! Life is going to start again. Let's cross the bars. -- Go! Go!" (72).
Une meditation isomorph, for A.G., H.C., and C.G.
Il y a un forêt dans chaque cité and a forest in that forêt where creatures hide away in the serpentine undergrowth beneath, while others huddle hidden like the lost sigmoidal wiggle of the absent ess beneath the tiny capot which marks the roof of the hut where it has secreted itself like a worm after rain, ou un petit ophidien sur un chemin, somewhere deep in the forest of a story, which is not this forest, but the forest of letters of the alphabet that her mother wrote out again and again for her -- upon her -- before her, once upon a time when they were the lone two creatures in their portion of these woods, her mother tracing the forms upon the palm of her hand or across her forehead; writing them in the sand or through a scrim of flour spread upon the board where later she would knead the bread before baking it; or, best of all, on some glorious mornings, etching them into a runic sprawl, a crabbed nebula arcing across the great, blank expanse of the newsprint sheets her mother spread out to cover the little table sur le balcon as soon as the weather turned bright enough and the day warm enough to go out where suddenly the bare, dead stalks of the shrubs wintering in their clay pots miraculously sprouted miniscule green feathers twitching like bright commas at the bud scars along the new branchlets. One by one Mama pronounced the names of each tendril she wove into this boscage -- ah bay say day -- and gently taking her little hand in her warm, long, grand one, extended her pink, small index finger, holding it in her own hand comme un stylo, tracing over the forms as she sounded the names once more, ah such a day at the sea, ou au-dessus la cité.
Slowly she came so she could name them for herself, moving her finger along the twigs and curves while whispering their names, and other times calling them out in response as her mother pointed to them one by one. Some days her mother would quietly sing as they sat there, she on her lap, her arms encircling hers, as if they formed a two-headed torteau together, a twitchy, giggling, crustaceous thing big enough to devour the low table sur lequelle the procession of tiny insects marched through the forêt, ces araignées colorées from the box of pastel pencils she held in her little hand, choosing which color her mother should wield to form the next letters. And so it was that she slowly came to realize that the names of things gave their shapes to both the forest and the creatures within: citron, the cousin of jaune and the name of the sour fruit; doll-faced marron, the color of her hair; bleu foncé, her corduroy jumper; bleu clair, the color of air.
Before long she was able to spy her own name there amid the scaffolding and verticils, the ladders and whorls, its squashed round vowels whose sourcils eux-mêmes had names of their own. Her mother sang of a secret name that flowed like water beneath the name she already knew for herself; and she knew, without quite knowing how, that none else would ever pronounce that name quite the same as these times when she and Maman made their way tous deux dans cette fôret.
Then one morning it happened that her mother announced a surprise. Next to her petit bol de chocolat chaud a sheet of cream-colored paper awaited face down upon the table Regard et vois, her mother said smiling. She turned it over and on the other side was something she did not know, a face smiling grotesquely amid broken marks she thought she should recognize. She turned the paper over again and looked down at the chocolate. A wispy cloud passed over its surface in a swirl whose tail resembled the smile on the other side of the paper. She said nothing.
She drank some of the chocolate, careful to keep the swirl from coming too close to her lips.
I thought it would make you happy, ma chérie, her mother said. She tapped the edge of the cream-colored paper, the polish on the nail chipped white along the edge.
She began to cry softly, knowing that she had somehow disappointed her.
Don't you see? Her mother said, I've drawn your face there in the midst of the letters of your name?
She turned the paper over on the table and ran the finger with the chipped polish along the curve of the face of the girl she had drawn there.
Oui, merci, she said, though she didn't see at all. The face took away more than it gave, it was not her, nor was it her name.
Her mother lifted her from the chair and into her lap, burying her face in her daughter's hair, drawing its fragrance in as she crooned the name that no one but them would ever hear.
For years they sought each other in that forêt, following the face and the song and the name, trying to bring them together in one place and time.
1 Hélène Cixous, "Philippines," trans. Laurent Milesi (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2011), 22-23. Page numbers of further references to this book are cited in parentheses after the passage quoted.
2 Hélène Cixous, "Coming to Writing," in "'Coming to Writing' and Other Essays," trans. Sarah Cornell, Deborah Jensen, Ann Liddle, and Susan Sellers (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991), 49.
3 Ibid., 20.
4 Robert Creeley, "I'm given to write poems," in "A Quick Graph: Collected Notes & Essays," ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970), 61.
4 Robert Creeley, "I'm given to write poems," in "A Quick Graph: Collected Notes & Essays," ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1970), 61.
5 George du Maurier, "Peter Ibbetson, with an Introduction by His Cousin Lady ***** ('Madge Plunket'); edited and illustrated by George Du Maurier" (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891), vol. 2, 146.
Top Image: Grant and Joyce with nimbus1 at Machine Project 2004.