In the first of its kind for the HKRB, Carolyn Lau curates a special issue on the pioneer of Taiwanese queer literature, Qiu Miaojin (邱妙津).
In this previously untranslated introduction to Last Words from Montmartre, writer and philosopher Hélène Cixous gives a powerful sketch of her former student, Qiu Miaojin.
Translated from the French by Jennifer Carr. The translator would like to thank Peggy Kamuf for her generosity and perceptive suggestions as she revised this translation.
(In Hélène Cixous’s seminar)
A young boyfiction or maybe a nymph waking from an Ovidian metamorphosis, testing his new body, uncertain, will she leap over herhimself and swim, head indeterminate, humor double, with the smiling snout of a tree frog, yet grasshopper-thin?
– this creature is animated by a spirit in perpetual motion, always ready to take-leave, to spring into action, which is to say passion, and to leap from one form to the next –
and so, one lovely Saturday in May 1995, in the lecture hall of the Collège international de philosophie, leaning against the desk where I spread the texts that will transport us across universes, she warns me: last she heard, she-he has parted from being-Qiu. And in the place of Qiu, the brilliant Chinese researcher-sleuth who had avidly followed Le Centre de Recherches en Etudes Feminines seminars until last week, Zoë has appeared. Who introduces her and leaves. Hello, Zoë!
“You know, in Greek, Zoë means ‘life’!” I say.
Henceforth, her name is Life. Self-interpellation, self-determination. Live, life!
“You know that by some inscrutable twist of fate, ‘Life,’ in French, is feminine? Life comes not from Zoë but from vita.” And French leaves Zoë to summon the animal.
“You know, Zoë is used as a girl’s name. Doesn’t even have the fortune of being epicene?” I say.
No matter! Zoë invents a new genre of amphibian, a being capable of inhabiting more than one element, more than one life at once, on land as in water as in air, passing from one species to the next, cultivating amphibology in language as in love. Yet on that day, the thin, quivering creature that I follow with a rapt eye across a page of Clarice Lispector, on which she, the creature, parades her slight, green body, is, the one who has painted her on paper and in space whispers to me, an Esperança. Esperança is a delicate genre of Zoë, almost as imponderable as a vision. Esperança is an auspicious message, a sign of life, a tree leaf that has metamorphosed into an orthopteran insect and now prepares to molt into a young woman whose limbs quiver with leaps ready to trace their thin, luminous lines through the air of the seminar room. What am I saying? If Esperança is a grasshopper in French, in other languages it is the feeling that makes us yearn to glimpse the luminous trace of promised desire, it is the leap into the future, the essence of the desire for what could come, the strength to wait for the later, the not yet, to navigate the void on a maybe, the virtue that keeps mortals alive, the secret to art, the poet’s answer to mortality. It is a greeting to the future. Hop! Hope! Hoffen.
“And how do you say Esperança in Chinese?” I asked Zoë.
“Hope? That is me. That is the name for the adoration that I am,” writes Zoë.
That is how Zoë will have answered me, in the book she was pulling from her thin body, trembling with elation.
This book, I did not read it until long after Zoë’s leap outside the slowness of time, hop! into a love beyond the beyond.
Yet I had before my eyes the thin volume of the passion-according-to-Zoë, in the flesh, at the moment of mutation. That spring, in Paris, Zoë thinks of nothing but writing, she feeds her insatiable tenuousness with a jumble of books. I am sometimes tempted to separate substance from residue, but the signifier is stronger than all else—residue is also read true, and Zoë swallows the good with the bad, in a de-hierarchization dictated by desire. Bitterness is her honey, too.
How old is Zoë? A Rimbaldian, street-urchin age, hands in pockets, speech drunk. She joins our political protests out of a love for revelry and revolt. Elf in a cap.
She makes me laugh.
Zoë adores adoring. Ad orare. Addressing herself, in flames, to Object You, You who is I. Little i deified as You, by mythological transfiguration. In 1995, You-who-is-I was called Xu, or literature.
Xu is (was) Zoë’s fateful object. A young woman traced by fortune in a single stroke to be Zoë’s destiny, her génitif, her genitive, her definition. All the more unique and absolute given that passion’s secret is hidden in writing: there is a book (it is “up there,” Jacques-the-Fatalist, birthed by Diderot, informs us), in which the Tale of Zoë’s life is-already-written. She-he has always known it, our Zoë, that the narrative of her existence had been written before her birth, at conception, and that she was thus a character in the theater of poets, genders, and animals.
In the Tale of Zoë, the hero-heroine is overtaken by a passion prompted by a magic formula: a batch of signifiers, a few lines sharpened to pierce the heart of Qiu-Zoë, and no one else. Is this an illusion? In the end, no one will be able to deny that it is a reality.
Acquiescence to destiny is what lends the last Letters from Montmartre their strange charm.
Qiu-Zoë-and other incarnations loves Xu for eternity, just as Montaigne loved La Boétie eternally and exclusively, because it was her-him because it was me.
This adoration is Because. It is the dazzling light that streams from the Letters, it is not celestial, it comes from the depths of organs, the visceral world of seething blood, of hearts on fire, it scorches everything in its path, it has no other end than its hunger, it devours itself, listens only to its pain. Barely has it been acknowledged and it becomes inextinguishable.
Whoever is struck by it surrenders to their fate. At first glance is already at last glance.
This incendiary phenomenon is rare. I only know of one other case: that of Phaedra—her mouth is full of flames, everything inside it burns, only a phrase survives, like the name of a mad prayer, the prayer that does not hope, that cries out: I’m in love. I’m in love! Emerald! I’m ill, love.
Mystic saints emit these cries from God. It is the hell of love. The mad saint of Ilove spins around the crater. The crater is her own heart, where her blood boils. She would like to throw herself in it alongside Xu. It has been done in certain cultures, in certain regions of literature—what was celebrated under the name of Double Suicide. In Japan, forbidden lovers threw themselves in unison on a sword. Yet once dead they were reunited on a single lotus leaf. Kleist, that great poet, drank his death with his lover. Death is proffered, mutually. Mutate. Exterminate. Death loves itself. Love bites its heart until
This is rare. This exists. As I see it, this does not exist without the testimony of the Text. Death is not the end. It is a ticket to travel the Narrative. The Account is good.
The Tale of Zoë will thus have begun from the End: in the first scene, passion is incarnated in a small rabbit condemned to death. First death of Qiu-Zoë. After that, life leaps from death to death.
The Count is good. This particular Account is always a mix of terror and pleasure. I am going to eat you. Eat me. Mix yourself with me.
Anachronistic surprise: we think the time of tales has ended. And yet here one unfurls in the world, on the street where we live. A tale is supernatural time, when creatures spurred by hunger, who keep a watchful eye on each other—animals and humans, wolves and sheep and sheepwolves—are not separated, exchange passions and fates, Desire one another.
The time when Felicity, Flaubert’s stuffed model, encounters sublime felicity in the person of Loulou the parrot, transubstantiated into the Holy Ghost.
During the entirety of my seminar at the Collège internationale de philosophie, I never once saw Zoë-ex-Qiu not ready to burst forth—she enters the room, yes, she is ready, she grins with all her teeth, she catches the wind, with her aviator-insect aspect, her texts for wings, she will take flight.
It was the last seminar of 95, “the ultimate,” as Kafka would say. We were discussing writing, pleasure, political struggle, metamorphoses, D. S. (goddess of sexual Differences), Iphis and Ianthé.
“Ianthé wanted marriage, the concretization of her love
Quamque virum putat esse, virum fore credit Ianthe
And for the one she thought a man to prove himself one.
Iphis amat, qua posse frui desperat et auget
Hoc ipsum flammas ardetque in virgine virgo.
Iphis loved, despaired of obtaining pleasure, and this only increased
The flames as, a girl, she burned for a girl.”
It was a passion unknown to any human. So new so prodigious.
Once the rabbit was dead, Zoë quickly reincarnated herself as a crocodile. I would guess: The crocodile that wanders the great French gardens and stairs of the eighteenth arrondissement, suffers from passion that has turned against itself. It is mixed with cruelty, tenderness, a rabbit’s heart.
Where did she go? It is the first day of the seminar’s 1995-96 year. Zoë is not in the lecture hall. Neither is Qiu.
She-he has passed to the other side. She has taken her life. Zoë Life has given herself death.
It is every poet’s dream: to see what life is like over-there-up-there-on-the-other-side, taste the last salt from the ultimate tear of life. Stare down the invisible. Discover the last minute of time. Spread the seeds of their signature into the future. Love themselves for all eternity. Taste the taste of death.
And return to the beginning.
It suddenly occurs to me that, no sooner had Zoë taken her life in June 95, as a Crocodile, she might have awoken as an ara. She repeats her death, first in Chinese. She continues to set her tale on fire.
Hélène Cixous is a writer and philosopher.
Jennifer Carr holds an MA in translation from the American University of Paris and recently completed a PhD in French at Yale University. Her interests include contemporary French and Francophone fiction, feminist theory, and experimental writing practices.