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Deriddean Cinders/Sacred Holocausts

by Silvana Carotenuto
18 May 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Im-possible Derrida [8] | Article

The Sacred and Belief

“… that old grey word, that dusty theme of humanity”

‘An Identity of Ash’


Le brûle-tout: (No) Place

Le brûle-tout: (No) Mourning

The Impossible Gift: A Mercy

The ‘Urn’ of Language

‘Fields of Fire’

‘I Want to Believe’

‘Planetary’ Cenere


The wind blows from the east bringing an acid hail from a leaden sky. The air stutters tic tic tic, rattle of deathwatch beetle on a sad slate roof. The swan of Avon dies a syncopated death. Ashes big as snowflakes fall, a black frost grips July by the throat. We pull the velvet curtains tight over the dawn, and shiver by empty grates. Our household gods have vanished, no one remembers quite when. Poppies and corncockle have long been forgotten here, like the boys who died in Flanders, their names erased by a late frost, which clipped the village cross. Spring lapped the fields in arsenic green, the oaks died this year. On every green hill mourners stand, and weep for The Last of England1

I dedicate my writing to the “Imperial Embers” of ‘The Last of England’ by Derek Jarman. In what rests of the island, in the desert within the desert, without any horizon of expectation, among ruins and debris, his weeping mourners bring me the burning images of fires, flames and ashes.2 The holocaust, le brûle-tout, radical evil, death drive, the drive for power, sovereignty and mastery, cruelty ­– “the most unprecedented and most inventive, the unbearable and the unforgivable” 3 – which resists “from the heart of Nazi Europe, to ex-Yugoslavia, from the Middle-East to Rwanda, from Zaire to California, from the church of St. Bernard to xiii arrondissement in Paris, Cambodia, the Armenians the Palestinians the Algerians and so many others”.4 Border lines, front lines, theatres of war: there is cruelty to oneself, to the other as other, the other in oneself, in me, in you; there is cruelty to the stranger, to the woman, the child, poetry…

Cruelty there is: “It’s going wrong… it’s not going well, it’s suffering, it’s suffering”.5 The question would be if it is necessary “to save, to be saved, to save oneself”6 – could Jarman’s mourners be weeping for redemption, restoration, and forgiveness? Would they be demanding the holy, the immune, or auto-immunity? I cannot answer for them (‘religion’ is the question here, and it will concern the ‘answer’, responsiveness, responsibility); I will rather read the notion of ‘salvation’ at the crossing of its religious sources, in a double fire: Sacrality (sanctity, indemnity, the healing, the holy) and Belief (alliance, tolerance, credit, faith).7 In their passion, the Sacred and Belief oppose each other, tightening in a band or in a bond; in the ‘space’ opened by their double source, in division (the one in calculability of the two, of more than two), in the vanishing crossing of their encounter and dissociation, the philosopher says that “there is place here for some additional graffiti’” 8 – graffiti, the writing apparatus, the inventiveness of writing (“I am calling it writing, even though it can remain purely oral, vocal, and musical: rhythmic or prosodic”)9 and the inscription of the gesture would set everything on fire (the holocaust, le brûle-tout, ashes and cinders) so to be able to face – will it ever have a ‘face’, or is it pure ‘invisibility’? – (the resistance of) radical evil and cruelty, nowadays, here and now, in the world, throughout the ‘planet’.10

The Sacred and Belief

Ashes or cinders are obviously traces – in general, the first figure of the trace one thinks of is that of the step, along a path, the step that leaves a footprint, a trace, or a vestige; but ‘cinder’ renders better what I meant to say with the name of trace, namely, something that remains without remaining, which is neither present, nor absent, which destroys itself, which is totally consumed, which is a remainder without remainder. That is, something which is not.

Jacques Derrida, “There is No One Narcissism”

Some works of art signal the return of the Sacred on the scene of contemporary creation: ‘Kadosh’ (1999) by Amos Gitai and ‘Teza’ (2008) by Haile Gerima; Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys, Beloved (1997) and A Mercy (2008) by Toni Morrison; ‘Fields of Fire’ (2005) by Michal Rovner and ‘I Want to Believe’ (2008) by Cai Guo-Qiang, focus their attention on the dynamics of the Sacred, within the frames of their different genres – cinema, writing, and visual art – and in the singularity of their visions: Jewish orthodoxy, the Ethiopian diaspora, postcolonial literature, slavery and racism, the exploitation of gas oil, and global terrorism. In their poetics, the Sacred returns in various forms: it is a sacrament, a call to testimony, the order of history, the question of forgetfulness and forgiveness; it resembles a spirit; it burns in fireworks. Indeed, it is ‘fire’ – as knowledge, witnessing, sacrifice, memory and mourning, exploitation and explosion – that produces the sacred remains that Gitai and Gerima’s cinematography, the fiction invented by Rhys and by Morrison, the enflamed lines recorded by Rovner and Guo-Qiang’s burning inscriptions, want to trace back, summoning them again on the stage of artistic reflection.11

The strategies of the confrontation with the Sacred utilized by these works of art, operate in a double bind: on one side, they insist on auto-combustion and auto-immunity, on the Law of non-contamination, indemnity, the safe, the pure, the holy – here, cinema, writing and visuality sign a ‘contract’ with the Sacred as ‘Salvation’. At the same time, the apparatus supporting their technical and inventive investment shows a different lean on Belief – alliance, the fiduciary, tolerance, fidelity, faith and credit. It is the re-turn of techné as the sacred matrix and matter of art: if cinema is light, and the Sacred is phos in its essence, Gitai’s camera intensifies the ‘eye’ of his camera in order to illuminate the marks of cruelty imprinted on the victims of (the archaism of) the Sacred; if, indeed, cinema is movement, it is by crossing the experience (fort/da) of universal diaspora that the Sacred is guarded and testified in the Ethiopian landscape depicted by Gerima, producing the beauty of new ‘identities of ashes’; in contemporary literature – in postcolonial feminine fiction, if cruelty is ‘there’ the strongest impulse to narrate the legacy of a past that needs to be faced, discussed, remembered and traversed – it is thanks to Rhys’s re-vision (if religion marks an alliance with itself) that it is (im)possible to re-elaborate history and discard its enforced ‘order’; it is in the act of Morrison’s re-memory that it is (im)possible to make sense of the signs burnt on the body of its – female – subalternity; it is by traversing the ‘origin’ of racism that her – female – Sacred can offer (The Last of) ‘A Mercy’…

Burning flames and liberating ashes: the Sacred ‘contract’ signed by these works of art lies in the permission asked to the religious authorities of Me’ah She’rim to film ‘Kadosh’ in Jerusalem; it is envisioned through the confessional and autobiographical pact signed, in ‘Teza’, between the ‘witness’ of the Ethiopian diaspora and ‘a whole generation’ of intellectuals; the ‘contract’ is portrayed in the formation of literary canons, for example (exemplarity is the question here!) in Jane Eye by Charlotte Bronte when it is re-written by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea; it exists in the impact of slavery upon memory, as Toni Morrison phantoms in her Beloved, and in the historical dynamics between racism and culpability, as she re-memorizes in A Mercy. At the same time, beyond any opposition, but behaving with respect, religiously, in discretion, the act of Belief evoked by these works, binds itself to the camera filming the ‘fetish’ of religion and illuminating the ‘exodus’ from the origin; it allies to a writing that, in believing in ghosts (the realm of imagination, fantasy and speculation), (de)constructs faith in alterity and in unconditionality (without sovereignty), finding its way through – cruelty – with ‘shoes’ that help to traverse the world: “the beginning begins with the shoes” announces ‘A Mercy’ (writing is always at its ‘beginnings’ – of only to honour Edward Said!)

Different processes enflame the visions presented here: questions of ‘light’, ‘prosthetics’, ‘madness’, the ‘ghost’, and the ‘step’ - pas, pas-sage and passage – of writing. Questions of sexual difference are also involved: it is a ‘patriarchal’ power that ignites the filming of the Sacred, illuminating its fetishes and animating its heritage; it soon follows a ‘female’ Sacred that knows how to read the (Western) episteme immortalized in the sacrifice of its other, and how to reveal the holocaust imprinted on her psyche and her body; this Sacred, indeed, also knows how to construct a scene of writing where to envision other forms of human binding.12 Difference, here, is placed at the threshold of Sacrality and Belief, and ‘there’ it functions in the sense – incense? – of a double fire: a fire that kills, wounds, destines, incinerates life and alterity, and, at the same time, enigmatically, secretly, a fire that burns in order to reveal (not ‘truth’, but the enigma of the traces of) cruelty, and to illuminate the exodus from the origin; the cinders of this fire give direction,  celebrate the other, and keep burning in darkness when writing offers (The Last of) ‘female’ compassion – « Woman have piety », says the Talmud.

“The experience of cinders is the experience not only of forgetting, but of forgetting of forgetting, of the forgetting of which nothing remains. This, then, is the worst and, at the same time, it is a benediction. Both at once”.13 A threat and the bless, both at once: oscillating and traversing, the visions of my texts (it is not a question of ‘appropriation’, but a way to expose appropriation to its fire) move ‘between’ the Sacred and Belief, the fire as the origin of the holocaust, and the fire illuminating the ‘other’ passage of history (her-story) in time and in space. On one side, they demand non-contamination, totalization, an economy of sacrifice, separation and indemnity; on the other, simultaneously, they believe in the refusal of archaism, in their own dissemination, in the respect for the other, in sublime intimacy, as ‘A Mercy’…

There is a last question that my works of art seem to be demanding – or offering: would it be (im)possible to create a ‘urn of language’ for the cinders left inscribed, imprinted, dispersed in our present landscapes? Would this mean to ‘save’ the fire, so as to allow it to further burn the earth? Would this gathering of cinders, perhaps, fertilise the earth, making it germinate anew? Here and now, in their poetics and in the enigma of their performances, the installations that close my writing are driven by the urge to create a ‘space’ for – without capitalization, to better disseminate – the cinders of the holocausts illuminated, mobilised, rewritten, remembered, and traversed by their Sacred art: ‘Fields of Fire’ by Michal Rovner turns the global conflict over gas oil into the beauty of incandescent flames that “lick the walls of a museum”;14 ‘I Want to Believe’ by Cai Guo-Qian (the most ‘appropriate’ title to countersign the assertion and the assumption of responsibility in the (im)possible choice entre the Sacred and Belief) writes the smoky rest (sans reste) of fire exploding in the air, throughout the skies, in the ignition of ‘gun powder’ …

I would like to acknowledge the sparks that ignite and burn my own writing (in its ‘interminable effort to achieve experience’):15 in Feu la cendre, Jacques Derrida’s crypt of the most beautiful polylogue – should I say, my impossible witnessing of his burning writing? – gives me the word (‘cinder is a word’, it repeats) to structure my pas, pas-sage and passage through the holocaust.16 This text frames my reading of the dialectics between le brûle-tout at the origin of the Western world, and the fire that burns the world to set it anew. Its gift is the play and the ‘caress’ of (sexual) difference: “il y a là cendre”/“il y a là Cendre” – the homologue impresses its difference in the reading, silently, religiously, profoundly productive … as a sign of my gratitude, in the unsayable loss at Derrida’s absence, I leave traces of this immense and sublime œuvre ‘there’, on my page, in French, ‘as if’ asking for an impossible translation… 17

Silence, question, and request: answer, response, and reply – my writing is not religious, but it is interested in religion as an ‘answer’ – to cruelty, to radical evil. It does not expect a response, but it loves responsiveness: the trace of the other in me, the call of the other that makes me human. The ‘rest’ is my im-possible responsibility in responding to the tears and prayers of Derek Jarman’s mourners – I believe the answer should only be ‘poetic’ … Re-turning to the fragile destiny of the hedgehog imagined in his “Che cos’è la poesia”, the humble animal that curls and crawls close to the earth, helplessly exposing to death, the same death s/he wants to be saved from, Derrida associates poiesis to “the question of cinders, of the cinder without spirit, without phoenix, without rebirth, and without destiny: perhaps the death of the hedgehog, its exposure to disappearance without remainder (sans reste)”.18 With the poetry of my texts, and the fragility of my prose, I offer “Derridean Cinders/Sacred Holocausts » to l’à-venir without rest…

“… that old grey word, that dusty theme of humanity”

… comme l’histoire à racconter: la cendre, ce vieux mot gris, ce thème poussiéreux de l’humanité, l’image immémoriale s’était d’elle-même decomposée, métaphore ou métonymie de soi, tel est le destin de toute cendre, séparée, consumée comme une cendre de cendre.

I had insisted on the light, the relationship of all religion to fire and to light… Light, phos, revelation, orient and origin of our religions, photographic instantaneity.

Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge”

… when people tell me that something is impossible, I try even harder.

Amos Gitai

“I believe to belong to the tradition that gives back the concrete sense of real light”19. The Israeli director Amos Gitai, the ‘architect’ of extraordinary visions, confesses faith in a cinema that wants to bring back ‘a concrete sense of real light’. It is a sacred tradition, a sacred cinema, a sacred sense of light that Gitai wants to return to his audience, in the ‘concreteness of light’ as ‘reality’, as the original architecture.20

The ‘concrete and real light’ illuminates the film ‘Kadosh’ (‘Sacred’, with a strong ‘K’), the cinematographic oeuvre that signs Gitai’s answer to the question of the Sacred: “I could not be silent about religion”.21 As a part of his trilogy on Israel, ‘Kadosh’ is set in Jerusalem, the ‘centre’ of faith, in the medieval, ultra-orthodox and ultra-protected Hasidic ‘community’ of Me’ah She’rim,22 enclosed within its ‘one hundred doors’, the ‘enclave’ of religion interpreted in its most archaic value, where the Sacred returns to its ‘greyest’ origin: “So we make a really long journey across a lot of borders, mental and physical ones”.23 Salvation, preservation, and partition: Gitai’s pellicle does not judge archaism, but decides instead to install on its ‘border’ – religiously, with discretion, in respect.24 On his way to the realization of the film, the director signs a ‘contract’ with the religious authority of the community:

And so I met with the Chief Rabbi in charge of relation with the outside world. A very elegant man, of Hungarian origin, very tall, a Giacometti-like figure. I explained the project, telling him I am not religious. I told him I was interested in seeing the ritual baths, frequented monthly by the women of the community. He showed me all the neighbourhood sites; he was very kind. And he started to discuss the conditions for filming in the ritual bath…

I think it’s really a question of body language and the way you talk to people. If you don’t immediately project a sense that you’re judgmental or condescending, superior, enlightened modern fellow. If you seem really interested they don’t necessarily reject you, and you can be quite up-front. So we started discussing the conditions of filming. But then I said to myself, “I can’t put him through this because our tacit agreement was that he show me the sites. But even if he does give me those sites, I will be breaching our understanding, for if I shoot, I need a cameraman shooting a nude woman. I will have gone back on our sense of accord, and I am not interested in that. So I told the producers that we should build all the interiors spaces. I didn’t want to disturb them. I would shoot some of the alleyways…25

Within Gitai’s respect for the sacred customs and rituals of the community, by acting in secrecy and in difference, Kadosh’s ‘eye’ decides to read the richest text, the Book, the Old Testament, the Talmud, ‘there’ where the Law governs the lives of its members: “the Talmud is such a hermetic, complete scenario of everyday life”.26 The scenario concerns the marriage of Meir and Rivka, who live in deep love, but cannot conceive a child. For them, marriage is a sacrament; at the moment, however, their ‘sanctified’ microcosm is experiencing the inability to cor-respond to the ‘essence’ of the Sacred: the preservation of the community, the Sacred erection, fertility, insemination, conception, the holy, the healing, the strong and the ‘swollen’ – as benediction, health, safety. The couple has been trying to deliver a baby for ten years without success. ‘Kadosh’ starts when Meir and Rivka must submit to the law of the Talmud: the ‘phallic effect’ requires no contamination, establishing the repudiation of the wife: ‘A woman who does not bear children is like a dead woman’, is the Rabbi’s (death)sentence. ‘Husband (ish) and wife (ishah) form an anagram of words that mean God (Jah) and fire (esh)’27- Meir, the one who can express his will, accepts the Patriarchal law (literary, the Rabbi is his father, who states, ‘He is not allowed to remain immune from the duty of procreation’), and remains inconsolably melancholic throughout the film; Rivka, on her part, does not protest, and soon leaves her husband’s home – that she is: ‘The home of a man is his wife’ (Jome, i, i). It is the instant when the Sacred light of cinema – the “muted palette of blacks, blues, browns, and greys” belonging to the director of photography, Renato Berta28 – allies with the ‘feminine’:

I wanted to work with a woman. Eliette is a practicing Jew, she observes Sabbath, and she helped me avoid exoticism and folklore. It is, at the same time, the film’s focus on the specific connection between religion and femininity: I didn’t want to make a piece that indoctrinates… I feel the film is strong and critical, and I am critical of the way that the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – treat women. The ideologies are constructed by men to insure their domination. And I wanted people to identify with the characters.29

If Eliette Abecassis writes the script of the film, its is ‘Kadosh’’s camera that illuminates, intimately, in caring and intense attention, the lost wanderings of Rivka – a ‘creatures of inhehaustible invention’, hidden in the difference between the living and the nonliving, a dreamer associated to “our secondary states, when we wander, border beings and passengers ‘in the air’ between the indefinite banks of what is called life and what is said to be death”.30 The attentive dimension of Gitai’s documentary is ‘proved’ by the ‘supplement of truth’, the ‘overimpression’ and the ‘accompanying ecstatic’ of the camera’s ‘lateral gaze’:31 in silence (in Rivka’s silence, if, during the film, enigmatically, she turns mute – is it in anticipation of la parole soufflé?),32 the eye of the camera accompanies the woman when she visits the Western Wall, when she prays (will she receive an ‘answer’ to her despair?), when she retrieves; its ‘real and concrete’ light illuminates her face, the ritual of her dressing, the way she hides her hair, her solitary cooking, the ‘unreconciled resistance’ of her body…33

The camera and the woman are, in fact, on their way to the sacred ‘scene’ of ‘Kadosh’: one night, in silence (it is the muteness of the camera now, absorbing the secret of what is happening), Rivka returns home and lies next to her husband; she embraces him and ‘rests’ by his side.34 The image shows the unbearable proximity and the grace of their caresses – the reunion of the couple might mark a turning point in the story; in truth, it is a scene of ‘fire’.35 “When husband and wife are not deign, fire will consume them”, is the order of the Talmud, and it will be ‘consummation’. The light of cinema illuminates the woman and the man for a second; it then intensifies, producing an aura of darkness: in the passage entre night and day, between life and death, the woman does not wake up. Meir calls her in sheer anguish: “Rivka, wake. Rivka, talk to me”, but Rivka will not respond. What is happening? Did she die during the mad instant of her Salvation? Is her death due to syncope or exhaustion, to asphyxia, a state of apparent death, the ceasing of respiration (le souffle coupé), the cessation of the pulse? Is it a fault in her immune or endocrine system? Are we witnessing a mysterium tremendous, a sortilege, the pharmakon – what the Book attributes to women, and that Levinas associated to “the penumbra where witchery blossoms”?36 ‘Kadosh’, the Sacred, burns the cells, breathing exhausts, life incinerates – “this experience of incineration which is experience itself … as the elementary form of experience”; ‘there’, the ‘centre’ turns into le cendre: “Il y a là cendre”!37 On its part, the Sacred light of cinema, allied finally with itself, illuminates the only litteralité of ‘that grey word’, ‘that old theme of humanity’….

Entre le blanc et le noir, la couleur de l’écriture ressemble à la seule ‘littéralité’ de la cendre qui tienne encore dans un langage. Dans une cendre de mots, dans la cendre d’un nom, la cendre elle-même, la littérale – celle qu’il aime – a disparu. Le nom de cendre est une cendre encore de la cendre même.38

What ‘rests’ is the revelation of the fetish, the de-sacralisation of the colossal and compulsive erection, the fatality of ‘autoimmunity’ affecting all communities: religion sanctifies life, while erecting the marionette, the ghost, the spectre of commistion and combustion.39 One might wonder if it is not the resource of the faith in Christ – I/Ch: Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior, the ‘phallus christique’? ‘Kadosh’ burns the gesture of female insubordination, translating her ‘transgression’ into a final ‘trespass’…

At the end of the film, the camera ‘eye’ follows the landscape of Jerusalem for its last time – as if tracing the ashes of the story in the sky, it re-turns twice on the golden dome of the Mosque of Omar, the symbol of the Sacred city. The scene might signal the instant of escaping its separated, divided, and protected territory (it is the desire of Malka, Rivka’s sister, who, in the conviction that “It exists another world, outside here, such a vast world”, tries to leave its mortal enclosure); for Gitai, simply and painfully, it is “the identification of a fetish”…

“Le symbole? Un grand incendie holocaustique, un brûle-tout enfin où nous jetterions, avec toute notre mémoire, nos noms, les lettres, les photos, les petits objets, les clés, les fétiches, etc.”

‘An Identity of Ash’

… il n’y a cendre que selon l’âtre, le foyer, quelque feu ou lieu. La cendre comme maison de l’être?

Cinder… testifies without testifying. It testifies to the disappearance of the witness… It testifies to the disappearance of memory… Cinders is an absolute non-memory…

Jacques Derrida, “There is No One Narcissism”

We are witnesses of a secret, we are witnesses of something we cannot testify to, we attend the catastrophe of memory. One could precisely give great examples – collective, historical, political – of witnesses that cannot testify or who do not know what or whom they are witnessing. It is a situation that can take on disproportionate dimensions, immense and on the measureless measure of the most intolerable cataclysms, genocides, or murders, but also of the most trivial everydayness …

Jacques Derrida, “Passages – from Traumatism to Promise”

“I wish that a narration were possible. For the moment, it is not possible”40 – Derrida’s impossible récit of Algeria, and the necessity to position his experience in the future invention of a language which will enable the narration, opens the poetics of another Sacred light, the ‘concrete and real’ light of cinema that illuminates the (im)possible history of Ethiopia, its diaspora and – if ‘colonization works on the mind of African people’ – the psychological effects inscribed on the one who plays the ‘witness’.41

‘Teza’ allies the auto-biography of its director, Haile Gerima (who, in his native Ge’ez, one of the seventy languages of Ethiopia, bears the name of ‘Mypheduh’, ‘the sacred shield of culture’, ‘the ‘Guardian of the Sacred’)42 to the biography of Anberber, a ‘Warrior’ who, in the seventies, leaves a remote village of Ethiopia to study medicine in Germany.43 Returned home during the Marxist revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, his intention is to contribute to the change and progress of his country; horrified by the cruelty of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship, he returns to West Germany, where he is exposed to the ‘last word of racism’: some Naziskins attack him at the university, breaking his leg (is Anberber an Ethiopian ‘Gradiva’, an African ‘Friday’?. It will always be the question of the pas as negation, the pas-sage as madness, and, at the same time, the ‘passage’ through writing as belief, faith, and alliance). The Law as the accident or the accident as the Law provokes the return of the Witness to post-colonial Ethiopia.44

Sa proposition, qu’y il là cendre, voilà qu’elle consiste, dans son extrême fragilité comme dans le peu de temps don’t elle dispose (sa vie aura été courte), en ce non-savoir vers lequel se precipitent, toujours de pair, l’écriture et l’aveu. L’un l’autre, l’une l’autre dans la meme crypte se compulsent.

“Only the fire knows of my return”45 – the sentence announces Anberber’s arrival home. Why is only the fire to know? What knowledge does this fire gather, or dissipate? The autobiography of Gerima, the ‘Guardian of the Sacred’, the re-turn of the Warrior, the ‘Witness’ Anberber, and a whole generation of Ethiopian intellectuals, all assembly in the village, around the family fire, among the ‘ashes and embers’ of the African history.46 Derrida would say that ‘there’ is always “the fireplace, some fire or place”47- in ‘Teza’, la demeure provides the ‘response’ – what ‘the fire knows’ is displacement and absolute dissemination: “For me, this film is really about displacement, which is a theme that really resonates within me”, says Gerima48. Dissemination will be the answer of the fire; in the meanwhile, the ‘Witness’, confined within the limits of his confessional autobiography, is animated by a drive to ‘totalization’, ‘testimony’ and ‘testament’, the ‘rational’, ‘identitarian’ and ‘appropriating’ traits of his diaspora (the actor interpreting Anberber describes it as “a rite of passage and a life-changing experience”)49 which burn in the ‘knowledge’ of fire, in what ‘only the fire knows’50

…the resurrection I dream of… would no longer have to be a miracle, but the reality of the real, quite simply, if it’s possible, ordinary reality finally rendered, beyond fantasy or hallucination… Love itself… For the child who could not believe what he was seeing… he was already telling himself a story; this story… namely that of the silkworm buried itself, came back to itself in its odyssey, in a sort of absolute knowledge, as it had to wrap itself in its own shroud, the white shroud of its own skin…

Jacques Derrida, “A Silkworm of One’s Own”

Totalization – in the desire to save himself from discontinuity (if  “the lack of continuity is what marks universally black culture”),51 Anberber returns to his native village, wishing to counteract his diasporic experience with the “sacred paganism of the country or the patria”.52 He returns to the matrix, to the mother and the maternal: in truth, if, on his first visit, he did not understand his motherland under dictatorship; now, in returning, it is his mother who does not recognize him. The man looks alienated, anguished and disoriented – is his drive to continuity a ‘lure’? is his destiny ruled by the disaster of destinarrance?53 This is the ‘knowledge’ of fire: entre nostalgia and reality, the ‘path’, the ‘road’, la traversée of the Witness is a rhizome associated to rooting and uprooting, to (self)exile and lack of home, to the abandonment of the country and the return to it.54 The trajectory radicalizes subtraction and non-presence: Anberber’s movements uproot, denouncing the dissemination (‘ashes and embers’) of the root.55 The ‘truth’ of Exodus emerges without any mediation, marking the impossibility of home (nostos), the phantom of the origin, the ‘pas’ of the spectre, the ghost of appropriation (vs. the assumption and play of difference from the origin), placed (but it is already and always in the ‘non-place’ of ‘cinders’) at the threshold of an ‘archaeology’ of memory and the ‘opening’ of history to the unpredictability of its events.

… this tragic impossibility to save oneself without loosing oneself, this ingenious deployment of strategies of survival, without ever being able to know what is going to happen, this very mental gesture of turning oneself over to the other’s keeping, to the chance of a benediction, may you say the poem that confides itself like a prayer…

Hélène Cixous, “Derrida as Proteus Unbound”

Testimony - the knowledge of the fire burns Anberber’s determination to ‘testify’- what is there to ‘witness’? If there is no heimat or originary ethos to return to, it ‘rests’ the wound (the envoi opening up the journey), the mark of ‘the other in me’, the ‘call of the other in me’, who blazons me and, at the same time, estranges me. If the return ‘of’ the Sacred goes back ‘to’ the Sacred, in the suffocating circle (vs. the immense Ethiopian plans) of confessional repetition,56 the ‘fold’ (re)turns (into) a ‘scar’ (piaga/piega), crossing the scene in a double bind that ‘protects’, and, at the same time, ‘exposes’: the task of the Witness who wants to translate his ‘identity of ashes’ into an act of sovereignty,; the failure in historical engagement by a whole generation of Ethiopians; the imperfection of the film ‘Teza’…

Within the original narration/the narration of the origin,57 Anberber wants to testify his memory and the memory of his people, in an ‘archaeology’ that should gather, in totalization, continuity and uninterrupted inscription, a form of remembrance placed at the threshold of “what happens – or fails to happen”.58 It is the instance when ‘confession’ turns into ‘circumfession’: the inscription of Anberber’s wound, l’escarre kept secret even to his mother, is the mark of an ex-propriation (im)possible to accept for the one who carries the signs on his own body. This might be why, limping on his prosthetic leg, along the path, through the pas-sage, the experience – fort/da – of the man is tinted by obsessive visions, nightmares, silence and loneliness. Here ‘Teza’ allows for the mad instants of the Witness’ re-flection: within his ‘self-criticism tribunal’,59 Anberber can only testifiy the crossings, the crosses and via cruces of the disaster of historical Ethiopia. It is the moment when the camera allies with spectrality: his memory is portrayed by painful flashbacks, through vanishing mnemonic traces, by juxtaposing history and his-story60. On this psychic landscape, the Sacred light of cinema inscribes absolute ‘heterogeneity’; in the midst of historical cinders, the autobiographical ‘I’ of the Witness is marked by scarification, ex-confiscation and impossible belonging; on their part, ‘Self’, ipseity and récit (a memory re-constituting a past) prove to lie among the ashes of a ‘re-trait’, in the ruining movements of an infinite destinerrance – the wake and the vigil waiting for the advent of the other, in separation and in condivision…

Testament – if Anberber’s instance of identification proves his ‘identity of ashes’, if his attempts at sovereign knowledge are exposed to the lack of memory (what marks the idiom, and magnetises desire), if the light of the Ethiopian sun burns all nostalgeria, if the pain, the suffering and the turmoil reveal no secret, then, the camera stops at the panic threshold of his-story, to produce the spectral re-turn of the ‘verdict’, the ‘response’, the ‘answer’: there exists no sacrality of tradition, of folklore, native soil, blood, and originary land; there is no Sacred shield of culture; la demeure, the foyer, the family fire provide no shelter. What ‘only the fire knows’ is the truth of no ‘salvation’ – if the Guardian of the Sacred returns, “armed like Prometheus”, with “the fire of modernization in the form of his ability to heal”, the verdict of fire is that “he is unable to cure the litany of his village’s needs”.61 It is the failure of the Witness, the escape of the Ethiopians from ‘responsible memory’, the ‘imperfection’ of Gerima’s Sacred light:

I am from a generation that genuinely wanted a better society and to do something for poor and oppressed people, but which got blinded and lost and turned against its own humanity to become the opposite of what we wanted to be.62

… (if decision-making is relegated to a knowledge that is content to follow or to develop, then it is no more a responsible decision; it is a technical deployment of… a theorem… responsibility depends on (tient à) what is apart and secret”)…

Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

In ‘Teza’, the ‘malediction’ turns into a ‘benediction’: entre (throughout the film, insistent images of ‘caves’ provide the chora or the refuge for the children of the village) the Sacred autobiography and the Belief in la traversée, the Witness’ choice opens (to) l’à-venir: in his aporetic/heretical ‘responsibility’, Anberber will remain in Ethiopia, replacing the teacher of the village, and teaching its children.63 The simulacrum of his ipseity will dedicate ‘knowledge’ to a generation-to-come; the practice of his survival will dispense life to the future, never to be predicted or controlled, only opened to invention and transformation. Perhaps, memory, rather than totalising a Sacred past, has always and already meant to ‘remember’ and ‘recollect’ the ‘incalculable’; perhaps, this is why “only the fire knows of my return”, its flames raising to the Ethiopian sky and dissipating the cinders of knowledge through the transparency of its air …


“… Ici s’éprouve la force implacable du sens, de la médiation, du laborieux négatif. Pour être ce qu’il est, pureté du jeu, de la différence, de la consumation, le brûle-tout doit passer dans son contraire: se garder, garder son mouvement de perte, apparaître comme ce qu’il est dans sa disparation même. Dès qu’il apparaît, dès que le feu se montre, il reste, il se retient, il se perd comme feu. La pure différence, différente de soi, cesse d’être ce qu’elle est pour rester ce qu’elle est. C’est l’origine de l’histoire, le commencement du décline, le coucher du soleil, le passage à la subjectivité occidentale. Le feu devient pour-soi, et c’est perdu; encore pire puisque meilleur.

Alors au lieu de tout brûler on commence à aimer les fleurs. La religion suit la religion du soleil. L’érection de la pyramide garde la vie – le mort – pour donner lieu au pour-soi de l’adoration. Elle a la signification d’une sacrifice, d’une offre par laquelle le brûle-tout s’annule, ouvre l’anneau, le resserre dans l’anniversaire de la révolution solaire en se sacrifiant comme brûle-tout, donc en se gardant.”

“La différence et le jeu de la lumière pure, la dissémination panique et pyromane, le brûle-tout s’offre en holocauste au pour-soi, gibt sich dem fürsichsein zum Opfer. Il se sacrifie mais c’est pour rester, assurer sa garde, se lier à lui-même, strictement, devenir lui-même, pour soi, auprès de soi. Pour se sacrifier, il se brûle.”

What fascinated him is the thing in which are collected the most powers of flight, feigning, florifiction, the flower that forms having always to be the rose of the phantasm. This power of transfiguration, this speed of metamorphosis …

Hélène Cixous, “Derrida as Proteus Unbound

‘Teza’ is a story of men’s names; it is also the story of its title: in Amharic, ‘teza’ means ‘dew’, the natural element that raises to the sky every morning, and falls back on the African earth so as to fertilize it, enrich its soil, and, perhaps, make it germinate. “Il y a là Cendre”- might there be a woman hidden in the encrypted sentence? Adrienne Rich envisions ‘dew’ as an instance of (female) ‘theory’, in a metaphorical and very real language:

Theory – the seeing of patterns, showing the forests as well as the tress – theory can be dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it does not smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.64

Theory can be ‘dew’; it is the ‘dew’ that ascends to the sky, descends to the earth, and smells of the earth – if it is wants to be good for the earth. Rising, colleting, returning; in the meanwhile, the ‘incense’ – has it got any connection with the fire, its embers and cinders? What ‘sacred’ alliance would there be with the incense – what ‘rest’, without resting, of the fire? Is it by chance that the history of metaphysics dates its commencement in le brûle-tout, the original holocaust, the incineration of the earth? By beginning in the annihilation of fire, it then produces its ‘religion of flowers’ – the philosophy of Hegel, the theatre of Genet, La Ginestra by Giacomo Leopardi:

… Here on the barren spine

Of the stupendous mountain,

That destructor, Vesuvius,

Which takes joy from no other tree or flower,

You scatter tufts of loneliness around,

Sweet-smelling broom,

Patient in the wastelands.

As indeed I saw you

Where your stems added beauty to the solitude

Of the dead tracts that brood

Round Rome: that she was queen of cities once,

Set in an empire gone,

Your stalks with their grave silent presence seemed

To witness to the traveller, out of oblivion.

Now I see you again upon this ground,

Lover of sad unpeopled places, unfailing

Comforter of fortunes over thrown.

These fields that are strewn

With unbreeding ashes, sealed down with lava

Turned hard as stone

And echoing to each visiting foot… 65

Ashes, ginestre and sacred germinations; burnt earth, fertility and flowers. Women write ‘dew-theory’, germinating flowers out of the desert (Georgia O’Keeffe) or from absolute fire (the ‘flower-writing’ of Jamaica Kincaid, for example, started when her mother punished her by burning all her stolen – volé – books). 66 With ‘dew-theory’, female poetics creates its own ‘religion of flowers’ (it is not a question of ‘appropriation’ but of ‘style’, stiletto, spur), ascending to the sky or walking close to the earth (on the ladder of writing, it also follows the descent of the Biblical angels ‘down’ the abysses of the earth).67 In contemporary literature, female ‘dew-theory’ inscribes another story of (Western) metaphysics, of religion, and of the Sacred – will it be (im)possible for its witness to teach her own ‘lesson’ to the children?

– Il y a la rébellion contre Phénix et aussi l’affirmation du feu sans lieu ni deuil.

Le brûle-tout: (Non) Place

Mais comment un mot, impropre à seulement nommer la cendre à la place du souvenir d’autre chose, pourrait-il, cessant de renvoyer encore, se présenter lui même, le mot, comme de la cendre, à elle pareil, comparable jusqu’à l’hallucination? Cendre, le mot, jamais ne se trouve ici, mais là…

This ‘lesson’ might be of tolerance – it would not be the ‘exemplary lesson’ that the Christians thought they could give to the world, even if they themselves had to learn it; it might rather be a lesson of respect for alterity as singularity, a scrupulous and discrete tolerance, signed in distance, in dissociation and in disjunction – “from the threshold of all religions as a bond of repetition with itself, from the threshold of every social or communitarian bond”.68To teach, or to be taught, such a ‘lesson’, it would be necessary to trace History back, read its holocausts, smell its incense, and, from within the ashes burning in madness,69 reopen (revision/rewriting/re-memory) her-story to the future, to the yet-to-come.

Jean Rhys, who rewrites the life of Bertha Mason, the colonial subject originated in Jane Eye by Charlotte Bronte, celebrates this lesson as a ‘song’ in Wide Sargasso Sea.70 The author kept her novel secret for many years – was its light so scandalous to be cautiously negated to an audience? Perhaps, Rhys was not sure of the resistance of the addressee – company, recognition, and response – of her ‘song’; maybe, her intent was so otherwise sacred – offering a lifet to the excluded, marginalized and negated ‘other’, upon which British literature and feminism have constructed their national literary canon – as to allow no witnessing for its absolute de-sacralisation. Fortunately, the novel was published in 1966, narrating, in three chapters, the story of Antoinette Cosway’s childhood in post-independent Jamaica; the experience of her husband, (the unnamed) Mr Rochester, when, on their honeymoon in Dominique, he reacts (the ‘answer’ allowed by his religion) to the excess of the place and to the alterity of his wife; the scene, set in England, where the ‘madwoman in the attic’ Antoinette-Bertha must necessarily follow the ‘burning’ pas, pas-sage and passage through the ‘destiny’ pre-ordained for her by Jane Eyre, the classic of British literature.

The novel might constitute the innocent desire to give voice to an alienated character, or the political drive to set a story right; in truth, Wide Sargasso Sea illuminates a burning confrontation with the Sacred, with God, with le brûle-tout. God is dead, and we say ‘adieu’ to him; there is no safety; religion may incense the loss; still, the loss is to be faced; the ‘adieu’ must resound as à dieu, in the construction of the address and in the recognition of alterity – with respect, religiously, in belief:

“The little ones grow old, the children leave, will they come back?” The music way gay but the words were sad and her voice often quavered and broke on the high note: Adieu. Not adieu as we said it, but à dieu, which made more sense after all: the loving man was lonely, the girl was deserted, the children never come back. Adieu (p.6)

The nurse Christophine, the obeah woman, sings the song to Antoinette, in sad words, her voice praying à dieu. ‘Adieu’: its appropriate sense is ‘to God’; to him are dedicated the stories of the lonely man, of the deserted girl, of the children who will not return, because, uncertain of their existence, are lost in l’à-venir. Adieu – sense – à dieu: in order to hear this song, we must say farewell to God, make sense of his-story, and be able to reach for à dieu. How does it happen? By moving, entering, travelling, escaping, traversing… fire, incense, and cinders! Wide Sargasso Sea rhythms its song with an insistence on fire; a literal scene of fire begins the novel; uncanny ‘Caribbean’ perfumes incense the core of its narrative; ‘familiar’ flames burn the récit – « a promise… something that marks a commitment towards the future » 71 that concludes its traversée

Pas de cendre sans feu.

Fire has already produced its embers in the non-place of Jamaica, during the childhood of Antoinette’s, in the regime of colonial destruction and annihilation: “… not any longer. Not any more” (p. 89); ” … Not myself any longer” (p. 12); ” ‘None of you understand about us’, I thought” (p.15), the girl sadly repeats. Secret voices tell the cruelty of that history; the verdict is given in parenthesis – “(“we were all damned and no use praying)” (p.17) – or in ‘burning’ dissipation…

Quelle différence entre cendre et fumée: celle-ci apparemment se perd, et mieux, sans reste sensible, mais elle s’élève, elle prend de l’air, subtilise et sublime. La cendre-tombe, lasse, lâche, plu matérielle d’effriter son mot, elle très divisible.

Il y a là cendre – a fire, set by the natives against the ex-slave-owners, burns from ‘underneath’/ ‘downstairs’/ ‘within’ the Estate of Coulibri, ‘a wretch of a place’ with ‘no road, no path, no truck’. In auto-combustion, as a spark of auto-immunity, nobody has paid attention to the rage mounting against Antoinette’s family; now the fire explodes, and its flames incinerate all circles of sense: the gathering of the community, the mother-matrix, the search for a refuge, the notion of Salvation. Antoinette is saved from the fire, traversing the flames that kill her brother Pierre, and the parrot Coco;72 she is running away from the ashes of her home, when her only friend Tia wounds her with a stone. After some time, she is taken to visit her mother, the ‘dancer’ who has become mad after the death of her son during the fire, and ‘there’ she can only testify the woman’s absolute “no no no’’ to the world. Antoinette ends up in a convent, that should offer her a refuge, with its stories of St. Rose, St. Barbara, St. Agnes, St. Innocenzia, the Relics, the Martyrs… The girl soon discovers that, in that religious ‘enclave’, the dialectic between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is only strongly re-enforced: “That what it was, light and dark, sun and shadow, Heaven and Hell… They are safe. How can they know what it can be like outside? (pp.38-40). Inside and outside, friend and enemy, native and alien, literal and figurative – the ‘outside’ does not fail interfering, signing the end of Antoinette’s childhood, and the beginning of her future: her foster father is planning a marriage that will offer her protection and safety. As a silent reply, the girl dreams of her determinate refusal:

“I have asked some English friends to spend next winter here…”

…a feeling of dismay, sadness, loss, almost choked me… I make no effort to save myself, if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen (p.40).

‘This must happen’ – chora sometimes assumes the ‘structure of the dream’, which, placed at the crossing of logos and mythos, provokes, at the same time, the lack of lucidity and the power of divination. Following the ashes produced by le brûle-tout, signed by the (death)sentence of the first section of Wide Sargasso Sea, on its page it only ‘rests’ the trace of a question – “Such terrible things happen. I said. Why? Why?”- and the ‘not-yet’ of the devil’s intentions.73

The second and central part of the story narrates of another ‘victim’ of his-story, in the encounter with the fire represented by his wife and by her land – a man from England, destitute of name and hereditary lineage,74 signs a ‘contract’ with the British Colonial Law, and marries Antoinette – in so doing, he appropriates her property and money. After the contract has impressesed its force of Law, and the couple is married, the story moves to Massacre (another place that, like the man, has lost the memory of its name!) …

Si un lieu même s’encercle de feu (tombe en cendre, finalement, tombe en tant que nom), il n’est plus. Reste la cendre. Il y a là cendre, traduis, la cendre n’est pas, elle n’est pas ce qui est. Elle reste de ce qui n’est pas, pour ne rappeler au fond friable d’elle que non-être ou imprésence.

‘There’, the man is exposed to unfamiliar perfumes; the scent of ‘crushed flowers’, ‘river flowers’ and ‘orchids’; the oil that the native girls use on their hair (“The man don’t like scent? I have never heard that”, one wonders); the air full of the smell of burning candles. His reactions prove his (Western, colonial) belonging: “I feel giddy”, he says: “It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking: what I see is nothing – I want what it hides - that is not nothing” (p.64). He wants to ‘unveil’ the secret of the land and of his wife, and ‘posses’ it, in a mission placed at the crossing of Knowledge and Faith: a letter, signed by  Antoinette’s bastard brother, writes of the cruelty of the girl’s father, of the madness of her mother, and, possibly, of her own hereditary craziness. Is this a ‘proof’? “Still you don’t believe me?” is the letter’s litany. In the trauma of devoilment or in the unveiling as trauma, the man gets lost in a hidden and secluded place, where he sees a girl with a basket, who runs away as soon as she notices his presence. As a reaction, he does not know if the apparition is real, a spectre, or a zombie; the word ‘obeah’ starts haunting his mind:

“A zombie is a dead person who sees to be alive or a living person who is dead. A zombie can also be the spirit of a place, usually malignant but sometimes to be propitiated with sacrifices or offering of flowers and fruit…(I thought at once of the brunches of flowers at the priest’s ruined house) …they cry out in the wind that is their voice, they rage in the sea that is their anger…” (p. 80)

Knowledge, Faith, and Belief: here, writing takes side with the simulacrum, allying with the ghost. In the only insert of Antoinette’s voice in this section of the novel (she wants an act of magic from Christophine, to get her husband’s love back), the discussion between the two women deals with ‘belief’: “The man not a bad man, even if he love money, but he hear so many stories he don’t know what to believe” (p.86). Christophine suggests Antoinette should speak to him: “I have tried … but he does not believe me” (p. 88). In truth, he has no faith in multiplicity, and does not believe in his wife’s capacity to spur experience with style; he believes in the ‘sovereignty’ of Reason. Signing his second letter, the bastard brother understands the man’s desire: “You believe me, but you want to do everything quite like the English can” (p. 96); Antoinette, instead, inquires on (the) Reason (of his behaviour):

‘What reason have you for treating me like that? Have you any reason?’

‘Yes’, I said, ‘I have a reason,’ and added very softly ’My God’.

‘You are always calling on God’, she said, ‘do you believe in God?’

‘Of course, of course I believe in the power and wisdom of my creator’…

‘And you and you’, I said, ‘do you believe in God?’

‘It does not matter’, she answered calmly, ‘what I believe or you believe, because we can do nothing about it, we are like these. She flickered a dead moth off the table…’ (p.98)

‘There is cruelty’ to oneself and the other – if God is dead, Reason must then be exposed to the ‘scent’ of the pharmakon

Un murmure parfumé, le pharmakon désigne parfois une sorte d’encens…

…( )endre, ou ( )andre, verbe, nom propre ou commun, et même un verbe quand il devient attribut – le tendre. Quel fait-il avec DRE, je me demande (sans, sens, sang, cent DRE). Je vous laisse chercher les exemples.

Even if Cristophine has warned her that obeah is not good for béké, Antoinette imparts her husband the portion, which burns his body and his mind as a lethal poison. The rhythm of the man’s reactions follows the degree of absorption, the ‘tenderness’, of his understanding – at first, he lets himself be affected by (the burning of) literature, by its unconditionally and promise:

I thought I have been poisoned. But is was a dull thought, like a child spelling out the letters of a word which he cannot read, and which if he could, would have no meaning or context (p.107)

… I drew the sheet over her gently as if I covered a dead girl (p.108)…

She [Amelie, the native girl with whom he betrays Antoinette] cut some of the food up and sat beside me and fed me as if I were a child (p. 108) (my italics).

Like/as if – the ‘fiction’ now translates its spectral threat into ‘regression’: having recovered from the coup of the pharmakon, the man is determined to impart his act of racism (the morning after, the shine of his lover seems blacker, her lips bigger…), his gesture of revenge (he writes to the magistrate to inculpate Christophine) and his signature of colonial belonging (his conviction is now that ‘slavery is a matter of justice’). The picture could be ‘complete’; in truth, in the imprint of its ‘double writing’, teckné insists on burning ‘the coming of the call of the other’ upon the man’s Reason. In a final confrontation with Christophine, her voice ‘echoes’ in his mind, the marks of her words inscribing on the page through italics, within parenthesis, in rhythmic repetition:

‘But all you want is to break her up’.

(Not the way you mean, I thought)

‘But she hold out he? She hold out’

(Yes, she held out. A pity)

‘So you pretend to believe all the lies that damn bastard tell you’

(That damn bastard tell you)

Now every word she said was echoed, echoed loudly in my mind… (p.120- 121).

The ‘echoing’ instance provokes an intensification of the man’s delirium: Antoinette, now “a red-eyed wild haired stranger’’ (p.116), can finally become the object of his ‘sovereign’ appropriation:

I drew a house surrounded by tress. A large house. I divided the third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman – a child’s scribble, a dot for a head, a larger one for the body, a triangle for a skirt, slanting lines for arms and feet. But is was an English house… She is mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me… my lunatic. My mad girl (pp.129-131)

Jacques Derrida would call it ‘appropriation ‘as’ madness’:

Property or the appropriation of the proper is precisely called what which is not proper to nothing, and therefore to nobody, what does not decide any more of the appropriation of the truth of being, and goes back to the bottom of the abyss, truth as non truth, the unveiling as veiling, illumination as dissimulation, the history of being as history as nothing, no being is produced, but only the bottomless process of eregnis, the property of the abyss that is necessary the abyss of property and also the violence that is produced without being. The abyss of truth as non-truth, appropriation as appropriation (ex-propriation) the declaration as parodic dissimulation one wonder if all this is what Nietzsche calls the form of style and the non-place of woman’… 75

ne pas rester auprès de soi, ne pas être à soi, voilà l’essence de la cendre, sa cendre même.

The ‘form of style’ and the ‘non–place’ of woman: if the appropriation of/as madness marks its regressive gesture,76 the abyssal structure assumed by the novel in singing its song, (dis)funtions the wheel (of fire) of the last part of Wide Sargasso Sea. In a cold room, a prison, a cage, a cell of experimentation, Antoinette-Bertha finds herself in ‘cardbox England’, guarded by Grace (if names matter!), destined ‘there’ by the canon of British literature. It is the mad and (im)possible translation of the story into the female act of dissipation and dissemination… through fire, flames and cinders. By entering the frame of her pre-determined destiny, setting at the centre/cendre of the fire burning Jane Eyre, the doll, the marionette, the defiant girl imprints her questioning on the page for the last time: “Why I have been brought here? For what reason? There must be a reason. What is it that I must do? …What am I doing in this place and who am I?”. In her ‘style’, she seems to refuse to know, understand, or remember; it is an ‘anamnesia’, an excrescence of memory, as if committing to traces that carry it beyond the mere reconstruction of any heritage, available past, cartography or knowledge. The effect is ‘vigilance’, if she is now lucid about the symbols and the ‘fetishes’ of religion: when she walks through the house, unnoticed by Grace, in discovering an ‘alter that reminds of a church’ and a ‘golden clock’, she comments: “Gold is the ideal they worship” (p.150). One second later the candle in her hand catches a curtain, and the apparition is ‘there’: “the ghost. The woman with streaming hair” (p.151). Antoinette-Bertha does not recognize the ghost, but accepts the relation with her: her ‘adieu’ sings as à dieu, signing her ‘response’ to alterity, in history, as her story, celebrating the ‘fire’ that protects and clarifies: “There was a wall of fire protecting me… Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage” (p.152).

Pas, pas-sage and passage: negation, madness, relation, transformation and alterity – Gayatri C. Spivak would call it the female ‘burning’ of the colonial episteme:

She must play her role, act out the transformation of her ‘self’ into that fictive other, set fire to the house and kill her, so that Jane Eyre can become the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction. I must read this as an allegory of the general epistemic violence of imperialism, the construction of a self-immolating colonial subject for the glorification of the social mission of the colonizer. Rhys sees to it that the woman from the colonies is not sacrificed as an insane animal for her sister’s consolidation.77

Le brûle-tout: (No) Mourning

Dans cette phrase je vois: le tombeau d’un tombeau, le monument d’une tombe impossible – interdite, comme la mémoire d’un cénotaphe, la patience refusée du deuil, refusée aussi la lente décomposition abritée, située, logée, hospitalisée en toi pendant que tu manges le morceaux  (il n’a pas voulu manger le morceaux mais il l’a dû). Une incinération célèbre peut-être le rien du tout, sa destruction sans retour mai folle de son désir et de sa ruse ( pour mieux tout garder mon enfant), l’affirmation disséminale à corps perdu mais aussi tout le contrarie, le non catégorique au labour de deuil, un non de feu. Comment accepter de travailler pour monseigneur le deuil?

– Comment ne pas l’accepter? Il est cela même, le deuil, l’historie de son refus, le récit de ta révolution, ta rébellion, mon ange, quand elle entre en historie et à minuit tu épouses un prince.

In the dark my name is Beloved

Toni Morrison, Beloved

The complexity of Beloved by Toni Morrison has been discussed so profoundly in the history of postcolonial writing that I will not try to insert the exemplarity of this novel in the limited space I am allowed. What I will rather do is to follow the fire, the embers, and the cinders that construct and disperse the ‘event’ of its narration, to get an insight into its burning writing.78

Beloved is set in a time of holocausts and in a place of absolute cruelty: the south of the United States, Cincinnati, Ohio, “a territory infected by the Klan” (p.66), burning with ‘lynching’ fires. ‘There’ is a past to such cruelty – the story returns to a time ‘before’ its present, focusing on an uncanny place: something must have happened in the house along Bluestone Road, at 124. A murmuring secret haunts and shakes the house’ foundations, its walls and interior; it must have been a terrible event, if the women – the men have all fled, or disappeared – who live and have lived at 124, are still suffering of its unhealed trauma: suspended between forgetting and memory, life and death, imagination and writing, Baby Suggs the grandmother, Denver the daughter, and the mother Sethe, signify their different gestures of ‘response’ (religion structures the ‘passion’ of this novel) to what happened in the past, and in ‘that place’.

Baby Suggs is dead, but her presence – the holy preaching, wisdom and advice she imparted to the community in the ‘Clearing’ – hovers on the house and on its inhabitants. In her life, she confronted the horror, the ‘intolerability’ of her past and present; one day, almost at the end of her existence, she betrayed the Word, and chose earthly ‘colours’: “I want to fix on something harmless in the world… Blue. That don’t hurt anybody. Yellow neither…” (p.179). She was pondering on ‘pink’ when she died; to countersign her death, Denver is ‘there’ thanks to a miraculous birth – in extreme conditions, providing the (im)possible answer to ‘What God has in mind?’, the question ‘talked’ by Amy, the white girl who helps Sethe in delivering her baby, one of the ‘two outlaw outcasts’ who does not pray but ‘Talks’. Denver is now ten, lonely, isolated, in need for protection. If, to survive cruelty, Baby Suggs looked for art, she relies on ‘imagination’: her refuge is ‘a round, empty room seven feet high, its walls fifty inches of murmuring leaves’, at the back of the house, set in emerald light, where “imagination produced its own hunger and its own food… Veiled and protected by the live green walls, she felt ripe and clear, and salvation was as easy as a wish” (pp. 28-29). Death, birth and life; art, imagination and writing: Sethe is the ’fire’ that burns the novel; the woman with ‘iron eyes’, the irises the same color as her skin, who has experienced Hell but does not remember it: “It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lavvy groves… Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the worlds” (p. 6). Experience, forgetfulness and forgiveness – it is the gesture of writing entering the story: at Sweet Home, the plantation where she was kept as a slave, Sethe used to produce the best ink; ‘there’ (where they sucked milk from her breast – Celan would call the holocaust ‘the black milk at dawn’), her back provided the subjectile for the cruellest inscription, the marks and the scars resembling sculptures or flowers:79

“A chokeberry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (p.16) … the sculpture her back had become, like the decorative work of an ironsmith too passionate to display (p.17)…

… “tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white…In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder” (p.79)

… Roses of blood blossomed in the blanket covering Sethe’s shoulders (p.93).

Sethe is the one who will respond to the drive for storytelling implanted in the story by a secret that paces its ‘devoilment’ with accuracy. If the opening of Beloved states the ‘haunting’ of the house – “124 was spiteful” (p. 3) – what is needed is a gesture of ‘spurring’, a further disorder, a new order, the ignition of a spark. One day, Paul D, who has known Sethe since Sweet Home, arrives at the house after twenty-eight years of wandering. The man is blessed; he gives bless; he constitutes blessing: “… feeling what you were feeling … emotions spread” (p.8). Like his hosts, he has created a refuge for himself – “a tobacco tin he keeps on his chest”; in his love for nature, he has reached 124 by tracing the blossoms of the trees:

Follow the tree flowers…

So he raced from dogwood to blossoming peach. … He headed for the cherry blossom, then magnolia, chinaberry, pecan, walnut and prickly pear. At last he reached a fled of apple trees whose flowers were just becoming tiny knots of fruit… he merely followed in their wake, a dark ragged figure guided by the blossoming plums (pp.122-123)

His arrival might initiate a new beginning, a new start, a different direction, the coming of ‘dew’ – when Sethe, Denver and Paul D. join at the village fair, their “shadows seem holding hands”. In truth, the story is not ready for ‘theory’ yet; Beloved, the novel; Beloved, the Ghost; and ‘Beloved or the sixty millions and more’ of the novel’s epigraph, burn for another ‘story’, a different fire, the incense of ‘re-memory’:… my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burnt down, it’s gone, but the place, – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world, What I remember is a picture floating around out there inside my head, I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there: right in the place where it happened (p.36). Picture, place, and incarnation – on their coming back home, waiting for them, there is a ‘stranger’ who seems “as though she had ‘crossed the desert’” (p.51); still, her shoes look new! Her voice is special, low and rough; vertical scratches mark her forehead; her name is Beloved, she says, like the inscription on nameless tombstones… Why is she there? Where does she come from? What does she want?

Mémoire ou l’oubli, comme tu voudras, mais du feu, trait qui rapporte ancore à de la brûlure.

Beloved is ‘there’ to provoke ‘Storytelling’ (p.58), the tales, the stories and the narrations uttered by Sethe, the producer of ink, who bears the marks of writing on her back. To respond to Beloved’s quest for stories, Sethe narrates of ‘fire’: for the holy sacraments of marriage and motherhood, she remembers the hole in her wedding dress burnt by the flame of a candle; she remembers the cross burned on her mother’s skin, the only sign that might identify her… Memories are hard, burning, and inflamed: “Sethe gathered hair from the comb and leaning back tossed it into the fire. It exploded into stars and the smell infuriated them… “Oh my Jesus,” she said” (p. 61). The ‘image’ is thoughtful: ‘exploding stars’ and the ‘infuriating smell’ are what the story is about, the story of Beloved: the ’star’ is her face burning in the sun, “the licking fire that seemed always to burn in her” (p.120); the ’smell’ is the odor of disapproval at the ‘dark and coming thing’, burning, with enflamed strength, the centre/cendre of Beloved. When Sethe escaped Sweet Home, she sent her children to Baby Suggs, now a free-woman; during her escape from cruelty, Sethe gave birth to Denver; their arrival at 124 signed twenty-eight days of happiness, celebrated by a ‘blackberry’ ceremony:

… a place near the river’s edge… where blackberries grew, tasting so good and happy that to eat them was like being in church. Just one of the berry and you felt anointed…She made pastry dough… Baby Suggs’s three (maybe four) pies grew to tan (maybe twelve). Sethe’s two hens become five turkeys (pp.135-137).

It could have been a miracle, the holy translation of scarcity into abundance; differently, the sharp and heavy smell of disapproval at the newly-gathered family, and the approaching ‘dark and coming thing’, announce the cruellest event: “… seeing high-topped shoes that she didn’t like the look at all. At all” (p. 147). When Sethe sees the schoolteacher, his nephew, the slave catcher and the sheriff arrive at 124, she grabs her children and runs to the shed: “Inside, there two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other” (p.149). The ‘lesson’ expresses the cruellest thought:

Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling him to think – just think – what would his own horse do it you beat beyond the point of education… see what happened when you overbeat creatures God had give you the responsibility of- the trouble it was, and the loss… if his other nephew could see that he would learn the less for sure: you just can’t mishandle creatures and expect success (pp.149-150).

In their (failure of) success, the men leave the house, the sheriff feeling a cold that no fire can comfort: “To stand in the sunlight outside that place meant for housing wood, coal, kerosene – fuel for cold Ohio winters… he was just cold. And he did not want to touch anything” (p.151). When Sethe is taken away from the scene, her profile is neat and clear; silence comes from the black community; death is upon her: “The hot sun dried Sethe’s dress, stiff, like rigor mortis” (p.153). If this is what happened eighteen years ago, its ‘secret’ cannot be uttered, only whispered at – a journal clipping might report the story; Sethe can try to explain her reasons to Paul D.; in fact, the wheel of history, spinning and circling round and round the room, does not stop, and truth cannot be unveiled: « … she could never explain… and if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place. Where they would be safe » (p.163).80

Paul D. refuses to understand the reasons of Sethe, or to accept her power in claiming, her excess of love: “you love is too thick” (p.164). When he leaves the house, Sethe, Beloved and Denver are left alone to carry on their lives, for the first time in the ecstasy of intimacy.81 Here, Beloved writes of the intensification of love, a fire that enflames the pages of the novel with its absolute refusal of mourning, burning the story with its other logic (if any logic can exist in these conditions): to gather the ashes of their (im)possible existences, and, within the dispersed embers of re-memory, to write the (Last of) ‘poem of ashes’.

Qui oserait encore se risquer au poéme de la cendre?

The return of the spirit or the spirit as return is interpreted by Beloved; Sethe, on her part, is experiencing a new sense of religion (“Lay it all down. Sword and shield”, Baby Suggs’s holy Words seem to indicate for her, now, at her necessary exposure to the ‘ghost’), while reflecting on her life: “Was that the pattern? She wonders. Every eighteen or twenty years her unliveable life would be interrupted by a short-lived glory?”(p.173). One day, the women go skating (“nobody saw them falling… Nobody saw them falling… but nobody saw them fall”, pp.174-175); when they reach home, the family fire repeats for them the miracle, its flames illuminating the ‘truth’ of ‘truth’:

By the fire Sethe looks at Beloved’s profile: the chin, mouth, nose, forehead, copied and exaggerated in the huge shadow the fire threw on the wall behind her (p.175-176)… No gasp at the miracle that is truly miraculous because the magic lies in the fact that you knew it was there for you all along (p.176)… Sethe looked at Beloved’s face and smiled. Quietly, carefully, she stepped around her to wake the fire. First a bit of paper, then a little kindling – not so much – just a taste until it was strong enough for more. She fed its dance until it was wild and fast (p. 181)…

… human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing. The stench stank… it stank… it was the ribbon. Trying his flatbed on the bank of the Licking River, securing it the best he could, he caught sight of something red on its bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet wholly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp… what are these people? You tell me, Jesus, what are they?

Toni Morrison, Beloved

“One more curve in the road and Sethe could see her chimney; it wasn’t lonely-looking anymore. The ribbon of smoke was from the fire that wormed a body returned to her- just like it never went away, never needed a headstone. And the heart that beat inside it had not for a single moment stopped in her hands. She opened the door, walked in and locked it tight behind it” (p.198). There is, indeed, no need for truth; the ‘ribbon’ of smoke coming from the chimney gives direction; on its path, there is the space for ‘the call of poetry’: “Beloved, she is my daughter… Beloved is my sister… I am beloved and she is mine” (pp. 200-213). Poetic writing anticipates Sethe’s opening to future (by the morning fire, she wonders what the sun is making to the day); it marks Denver’s new strength (‘like a cinder in an eye’); it signs the final belonging of Beloved to the ‘sixty million and more’, announced in the epigraph of the novel: “a hot thing I want to join doing it at last now we can join a hot thing” (p.213). The ‘poem of ash’ is ‘there’, inscribed on the page, rejoicing the voices of its ‘witnesses’:

You are my sister

You are my sister

You are my face; you are I

… You are mine

You are mine (pp. 214-217)

“The poem… remains an abandoned trace, all at once independent form the intention and conscious meaning-to-say of the signatory, wandering, but in secretly regulated manner, from one referent to another – and destined to survive, in an ‘infinite process’, the decipherings of every reader to come”.82 Is Beloved’s ‘poem of ash’ demanding for forgiveness? The last part of the novel follows this quest: “Then the mood changed and the arguments began. Slowly at first. A complain from Beloved, an apology from Sethe… Sethe pleaded for forgiveness” (pp. 241-242). Her plead seems to exist to counterbalance Beloved’s deprivation of love, her mortal embrace with her ‘missed’ mother: “Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it” (p. 250). In truth, what matters is not ‘forgiveness’ (the novel is well aware of this: “It was as though Sethe didn’t really want forgiveness given: she wanted it refuse. And Beloved helped her out”, p. 253), but the production of ‘a new thought’ (p. 251). It may assume the apparent form of an appeal to Salvation (“Somebody had to be saved”, p. 252), but its desire is to sign a hymn to life, the opening to “what language was made for” (p. 252). Denver, the bearer of life, asks the women of the community to save her mother; in their belief, experience and good faith, thirty women walk to 124; ‘there’, in that place without a place, with more than one place, they utter “the earnest syllables of agreement that backed it: Yes yes yes, oh yes. Hear me. Hear me. Do it, maker, do it. Yes” (p. 258).83 And the Maker produces his ‘answer’: the house’s haunting is dispersed, and the process of re-memory is sealed in a ‘picture’ appearing in absolute singularity and repetition, once and for all: « Sethe feels her eyes burn and it may have been to keep the clear that she looks up. Not one touches of death on the definite green of the leaves » (p. 261).

At the end of the novel, Denver finds her way through existence; Paul D returns at 124, to caress Sethe’s back once again; Sethe slowly recovers. They will all forget; still, Beloved’s footprint keeps coming back, familiar and strange, its refrain addressed to the future: “It was a story not to pass on… It was not a story to pass on… this is not a story to pass on” (pp. 274-275). ‘Pass’: pas, pas-sage and passage – by echoing Shakespeare, the final line of Beloved simply recites: “the rest is weather … wind in the eaves, or spring ice twain too quickly. Just weather…” (p. 275).

C’est là la cendre: ce qui garde pour ne plus même garder, vouant le reste à la dissipation, et ce n’est plus personne disparue laissant là cendre, seulement son nom mais illisible… Il y a là cendre, une phrase dit ainsi ce qu’elle fait, ce qu’elle est. Elle s’incinère à la seconde, sous vos yeux: mission impossible…

The Impossible Gift: A Mercy

‘‘…le procès du don (avant l’échange), procès qui n’est pas un procès mais un holocauste, un holocauste de l’holocauste, engage l’historie de l’être mais ne lui appartient pas. Le don n’est pas, l’holocauste n’est pas, si du moins il y en a. Mais dés qu’il brûle (l’incendie n’est pas un étant) il doit, se brulant lui-même, brûler son opération de brûler et commencer à être. Cette réflexion, ce reflet de l’holocauste engage l’histoire de la dialectique du sens, l’ontologie, le spéculative. Le spéculative est le reflet (speculum) de l’holocauste de l’holocauste, l’incendie réfléchi et rafraîchi par la glace du miroir’’ [] ‘‘Il y a là un fatum du don, et cette nécessité se disaient dans le ‘doit’ (muss) qui nous l’indiquait plus haut [] Je te donne – don pur, sans échange, sans retour – mais que je le veuille ou non, le don se garde et dès lors tu dois. Pour que le don se garde, tu dois [] Le don ne put être qu’un sacrifice, tel est l’axiome de la raison spéculative. Même s’il surgit ‘avant’ la philosophie et la religion, le don a pour destination ou détermination, pour Bestimmung, un retour à soi dans la philosophie, vérité de la religion”.

… the experience of cinders, which communicates with the experience of the gift, of non-keeping, of the relation to the other as interruption of economy, this experience of cinders is also the possibility of the relation to the other, of the gift, of affirmation, of benediction, of prayer…

Jacques Derrida, “There is No One Narcissism”

There is no contradiction… between cruelty and something like what I am calling here, with a word that is not the right one, compassion.

Jacques Derrida, “ The Pocket-Size Interview”

The dark is me. Is we. Is my home

Tony Morrison, A Mercy

‘This was/is a story not to pass on’; might it be a story to pass ‘through’ darkness? Like Beloved’s ‘weather’, struggling with (the rest is) silence, Tony Morrison’s writing does not stop; it only needs ‘shoes’ to walk on, passing through existence: “The beginning begins with the shoes”, is the commencement of A Mercy, the last effort of poetic ‘re-memory’ signed by the American-African storyteller.

A Mercy is a story that presents itself, from the start, as a gift to reading – its first question is”can you read?” (p.3). It is a ‘confession’, whose secret is made of (brutal and poetic) ‘dreams’, envisioning the specific ‘responsibility’ of cruelty. The story returns to 1690 (and earlier, in 1682), setting its action in the newness of Virginia, Caroline, Maryland, among freedmen, slaves and indentured labour, where the most horrible sin is the extermination of Natives and the importation of African slaves, and when the world survives under the rule of the gentry’s profit: “new laws authorising chaos in defence of order… lawless laws encouraging cruelty” (pp.11-12). “Unreason rules the here” (p.193) – writing needs its pas, pas-sage and passage through cruelty; it thus allies with the errand journey of Florens, the girl who speaks only when she is given shoes. With shoes, she traverses the world and the story, walking through clearings and connections, expelling herself inside/outside the world and the story, so as to be able to reach – will she do so? – the man who has saved her friend, and who will now save her mistress, realising also her own dreams of protection and affection. From its beginning, the novel knows that Florens will be tracing after ‘fire’:

When I arrive here I believe it is the place he warns against. The freezing in hell that comes before the everlasting fire where sinners bubble and singe forever. But the ice comes first, he says. And when I see knives of it hanging form the houses and trees and feel the white air burn my face I am certain the fire is coming (pp.8-9)

At the beginning of the story, she is a little Angolan child hidden behind the legs of her mother, who offers her to ‘Sir’ as a pay-off of her owner’s debt, the balance due. ‘Sir’, the receiver of the ‘gift’, is Jacob Vaak, a Virginian Noah – “VA’s ark” – a Protestant Anglo-Dutch agent of the Company, who arrives to America (‘a sunfired land’, an ‘ad hoc territory’) to turn his ambitions real. He has two dreams: attracted by adventure, he flanks the new land, “penetrating it was like struggling through a dream” (p.10) and “making a place out of no place”, first as a farmer and a trader first, then as a dealer (through his buying a sugar plantation in Barbados, where slaves are “Shipped in more. Like firewood, what burns to ash us refuelled … Right? Right, he thought”, pp.35-40). This business turns his other dream true: if he wants to rise up in the world, bringing nature under control, he will build an immense house, the profane monument to his ambition: “Understand me… I will have it” (p.105), he tells his wife Rebekka, the woman whom he infects with pox, the same disease that kills him and lets his ‘ghostly blaze’ – a ‘glow’ – haunt the emptiness of the glorious house. Is it the drive to cruelty, totalization and appropriation, that causes his death? ‘Appropriation’ already worries an eagle, when laying her eggs in the nest:

She is fierce, protecting her burning young. But one thing she cannot defend against: the evil thought of man. One day a traveller climbs a mountain nearby… “This is perfect. This is mine… Mine. Mine. Mine… the eagle swivels her head to find the source of the strange meaningless thunder, the incomprehensible sound. Spotting the traveller, she swoops down to claw away his laugh and his unnatural sound. But the traveller, under attack, raises his stick and strikes her wing with all his strength. Screaming she falls and falls (pp.72-73).

‘Appropriation’ is the pathology of the place, as prophesised by the Sachem: “Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary people” (p.64). ‘Appropriation’, is, however, what women cannot – and will not – perform: “With exaggerated sighs and mild curses they sorted their possession and appropriated territory no bigger that a doorsteps” (p.97). “Slavery, rape, religion, violence, marriage, genocide, trade – all methods of control organized by men”84- Jacob exists, dies, and haunts the place mainly to counteract la traversée of A Mercy through ‘the pleasure of process’, ‘self-invention’, nurturing and mothering, the promise of writing – these traits mark the passage of the story through the lives of the two women of the house, Rebekka and Lina, and the experiences of the two girls, Sorrow and Florens, who arrive there by ‘chance’. The voices of this ‘community’ of women sing a chamber piece, a female chorus of testimony of horror and cruelty, at that time, in Mary-Land and Virginia – “the colonies ironically named after women but that are unmerciful and cruel to those females who come to their shores”85.

The relationship between the grown-up women is specular (there will be the exchange, between them, of the ‘gift’ of a mirror…pp.69-70). In narrating their stories, the writing of A Mercy enflames, on one hand, the subjectivity of the European Rebekka (violent fires enflame the war of religions in England, during her adolescence, provoking her feelings of loneliness and regret) and, on the other hand, the process of self-invention carried our by the ‘other’ of Europe (Lina’s notions of hatred, apartheid, exile and rape, and, together, her wisdom and love…).

When the story starts, Rebekka is infected by pox, lying in bed, in a state of ‘fever and memory’ (p.85). She is the unchurched woman who arrived from London to ‘this land of such space and perfume’, on a ‘prepaid passage’ on board of the Ship Angels, in order to marry Jacob. She was escaping from her family, and religious fundamentalism (one interest of the novel is ‘the unsettling underbellies of religion and colonialism’): “Religion, as Rebekka experienced it from her mother, was a flame fuelled by a wondrous hatred. Her parents … saved their fire for religious matters” (p.87). Her universe is constructed with the memories of a ’shallow god’, an ‘avenging god’, the ‘Fifth Monarchists’ and Church Schools; she remembers executions, hangings, drawings and quartings: she has gone through ‘years of retelling and rediscribing’ the witch burnings, the rain fallings, the freezing, and, the cruellest “curtseying, curtseying curtseying” (p.89). Rebekka has learnt something from the continuity of her ‘sacred’ memories (in describing her memories, the novel insists on the ‘gerundive’ tense): “The pleasure is in the process”, is her motto. Once installed in the ‘new world’, she learns to live with her husband, and to give birth to their children, who all die: “breast still leaking and already rinsing off the darkening blood from her daughter’s skull hit by a horse”. Lina thinks that « her three children are collecting at the edge of the sky like stars, like clouds »; Rebekka comments that this might be “Pagan stuff, true, but more satisfying that I-accept-and-will-see-you-at-judgment day prayers” (p.93).

Forced in bed, her wrist tied up against self-mutilation, her husband and her children dead – “an accusation of failure, a mockery of her own” (p.108) –  Rebekka fears loneliness: as a relief, around her, gather the spectres of the ‘exile, thrown away’ women she met on the passage to the new world. Companions with the gift of ‘imagination’, their ‘confessions’ exchanged in the dark of the ship, the ones capable of lighting her worries and expectations, the ghosts help her traverse her present delirium, when time and space collapse in her ‘sick’ dream of salvation:

The Anabaptists were not confused about any of this. Adam (like Jacob) was a good man but (unlike Jacob) he had been goaded and undermined by his mate. They understood, also, that there were lines of acceptable behaviour and righteous thought. Levels of sin, in other words, and lesser people. Natives and Africans, for instance, had access to grace but not to heaven- a heaven they knew as intimately as they knew their own gardens. Afterlife was more than divine, it was thrill-soaked. Not a blue and gold paradise of twenty –four-hour praise song, but an adventurous real life, where all choices were perfect and perfectively executed…. There would be music and feasts, picnics and hayrides. Frolicking. Dreams come true. And perhaps… God would take pity and allow her children thought too young for a baptism of full immersion, entrance to his sphere. But of greatest importance, there was time. All if it. Tine to converse with the saved, laugh with them. Skate, even on icy ponds with a cracking fire shore to warm one’s hands… think of it, imagine, No illness. Ever. No pain. No aging or frailty of any kind. No loss or grief or tears. And obviously no more dying, not even if the stars shattered into motes and the moon disintegrated like a corpse beneath the sea.

She had only to stop thinking and believe (p.117).

Rebekka will stop thinking, and believe; in the meanwhile, “the mute alliance that comes of sharing tasks” (p.87) binds her to Lina, her protector and midwife, a praying savage, the ‘survivor’ (as it is shown by the glow in her tawny skin – is she a native ‘Cleopatra’?) of the devastation of her tribe by plague.86 If, to ease her fears, Rebekka talks to the sea (p.87), Lina speaks to the trees: “You and I, this land is our home … but unlike you I am exile here” (p. 69). Her exile is the outcome of the ‘war’ between the ‘non-Europe’ and the ‘Europe’, the ones who circled her village with fire, burnt her people’s ‘sacred places’, and worshipped a ‘dull, unimaginative god’ (p.63). When the soldiers come, they take her to a congregation of Presbyterians, who give her the name Messalina – “shortened it to Lina to signal a sliver of hope” (p.55), ‘purify’ her, ‘burn’ her deerskin dress, and include her in their prayers… Lina soon escapes from this community, starting her own process of ‘self-invention’ (p.59), the creation of the pharmakon, the hermit skill that turns ‘cruel fire’ into ‘benign fire’:

Fire. How quick. How purposefully it ate what had been built, what had been life, Cleansing somehow and scandalous in beauty. Even before a simple hearth or encouraging a flame to boil water she felt a sweet twinge of agitation (p.57).

At the estate, Lina is the ‘other’ of Rebekka, sharing life with her. Their idle talk often refers to God:

I don’t think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if he knew us, but I don’t think He knows us.

But He made us, Miss. No?

He did. But he made the tails of peacocks too. That must have been harder.

Oh, but, Miss, we sing and talk. Peacocks do not.

We need to. Peacocks don’t. What else do we have?

Thoughts. Hands to make things.

All well and good. But tat’s our business. Not God’s He’s doing something else in the world. We are not on His mind.

What is He doing then, if not watching over us?

Lord knows.

And they sputtered with laughter, like little girls hiding behind the stable loving the danger of their talk (p.94).

In truth, in the estate, there are two ‘little girls’ who love their talk, and who have been taken ‘there’ because they are ‘waifs’87 – being an orphan himself, Jacob thinks that ‘only the generosity of strangers’ can help them. It is the reason why he accepts Sorrow, a difficult child, and Florens, offered by her mother in exchange of her owner’s debts. Sorrow is a strange, indifferent and secretive creature, keen on the art of escape, who keeps talking to her spectral Twin, her identical self who gives her safety, salvation, and consolation: “I am here, I am always here” (p.149). She is an outcast who survived the shipwreck that killed her father, and who was taken to land by mermaids – was it whales? When she reaches the house, she is unable to work, and soon becomes, as people say, ‘the play of men’. In truth, she brings the strength of her carnal body into the writing: carried home on the horse by Jacob, “the burning brought her to tears” (p.142); when she becomes pregnant, she looses her baby, remaining suspicious of Lina, who might have killed the new born. She falls ill – ‘burning and shaking’ – and is saved by the blacksmith, the ‘iron man’ who is working on the gate of the new house.88 He is a black free man who shapes fire, a healer, a savior, the one who will change the life of Florens, the child with a singsong voice that resounds only when she is given shoes to wear. Florens is a lively, gentle, open and versatile girl, eager for affection, only haunted by the memory of her mother’s ‘abandonment’: ‘Expel’, she calls it. It might be the reason why she falls so madly in love with the blacksmith, identifying him with the centre/cendre where she wants to ‘rest’; in his arms, she needs “no holy spirit, no communion, or prayer” (p.81): “With you my body is pleasure is safe is belonging” (p.161). Her adoration is for the glory of fire, for the blacksmith’s ancestors who shaped it “with furnaces from termite mounds” (p.80). ‘Fire’ is what burns upon their first encounter:

Night comes and I steal a candle. I carry an ember in a pot to light it. To see more of you. When it is lit, I shield the flame with my hand. I watch you sleeping. I watch too long. Am careless. The flame burns my palm. I think if you wake and see me seeing you I will die. I run away not knowing then you are seeing me seeing you. And when at last our eyes hit I am dead. Fro the first time I am live (p.44)

On dit ‘cendres chaudes’, ‘cendres froides’ selon que le feu s’y souvient encore, y couce ou ne fomente plus.

In ‘summer dew’ or in ‘cold dew’ (p.79, p.121), by following the smell of fire, Florens looks for the blacksmith, who is needed to save Rebekka, and who, by giving direction to her search, provides the pas, pas-sage and passage of A Mercy – “I am coming to you… I am moving north”. On her passage, the girl walks in meadows lit by fires, along paths that lead to the northern places where witches are burnt. In a place ‘that remembers the burning of itself’, she meets Widow Healing and Daughter Jane, getting involved in a tribunal gathering where the ‘judges’ deprive her of the ‘letter’ – as if it could “fly away or turn to ashes without flame” (p.132) – given by Rebekka as her signed ‘passport’. The letter certifies ‘a burne in the palm of her left hand… a candle burn palm”, the sign of her identity and  her ‘salvation’: “With the letter I belong and am lawful. Without it I am … a darkness I am born with, outside, yes, but inside as well and the inside dark is small, feathered and toothy. Is that what my mother knows? » (p.135). Through darkness, when ‘the smell of fire and ash trembles me’, Florens finally reaches the blacksmith; informed of Rebekka’s state, the man leaves to visit her, while the girl waits for him in the hut…

Je lisais, relisais, c’était si simple et pourtant je comprenais que je n’y était pas, la phrase se retirait sans m’attendre vers son secret.

Dark matter out there, thick, unknowable, aching to be made into a word… It was enough to imagine a future

Toni Morrison, A Mercy

The blacksmith reaches Rebekka only to witness her miraculous recovery. After his passage, however, nothing stays the same: Rebekka turns her melancholy into an invisible ‘ash of sadness’ that absorbs the smoke grey of her eyes, imposing vengeance and infidelity on her future actions; Lina, still simmering in honour and self work, turns her vivacity into absolute unapproachability; Sorrow gives birth to a girl, just behaving like a mother – “Nothing more nothing less”; as a sign of her new trust, she re-names herself as ‘Complete’…. What about Florens? When the blacksmith reaches the hut, in discovering that the boy he has thrusted Florens to look after, is wounded, his reaction is immediate, determinate, and ‘cruel’:

“You are nothing but wilderness. No constrains. No mind. You shout the word – mind, mind, mind”…

“Now I am living the dying inside. No. Not again. Not ever. Feathers lifting. I unfold…” (pp. 166-167)

Florens returns to Rebekka, who will, eventually, out of her new infidelity, sell her. The girl looks now different, a ‘visitation’ between a ghost and a soldier; her face shows a feral expression, her body is untouchable, her feet are ‘hard like cypresses’. In her, there is no heart beating, no feeling of home or future aspiration; it only rests the place where she can write ‘my telling’, the carving of her letters, with a nail, into the walls of the master’s unfinished and abandoned house. She is sheltered by the lamp she holds in one hand, while the other writes, obsessed by a last horror – what will happen if nobody reads her words?

These careful words, closed up and wide open, will talk to themselves. Round and round, side to side, bottom to top, top to bottom all across the room. Or, or perhaps, no perhaps these words need the air that is out in the world. Need to fly up and fall, fall like ash over acres of primrose and mallow. Over a turquoise lake, beyond the eternal hemlocks, thought clouds cut by rainbow and flavour the soil of the earth (p.188).

‘‘Comment le pur du pur, le pire du pire, l’incendie panique du brûle-tout pousserait-il quelque monument, fut-il crématoire? quelque forme géométrique, solide, par exemple une pyramis qui garde trace de la mort? Pyramis, c’est aussi un gâteau de miel e de farine. On l’offrait en récompense d’une nuit blanche à qui restait ainsi éveillé.’’

What ‘remains’ ‘there’ is the assumption of her signature: “I am also Florens. In full. Unforgiven. Unforgiving … I last” (p.189), and a last sadness: she will never know what, in her dreams (in one of them, she is unable to see her own face), her mother has been trying to tell her throughout the story. ‘A Mercy’ – a gift resonates in the last words of the novel: “…There was no protection… There is no protection…” (pp. 190-191). It is her mother who signs the conclusion of A Mercy by narrating the fire that burnt her village, the sweat when she was taken to the plantation, how ‘there’ she was translated into ‘Negrita’, the moment when she was sold to the cruel slave-owner D’Ortega. The morning when she sees Jacob arrive at the house, she knows what to do:

One change, I thought. There is no protection but there is difference… I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He said yes.

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy.89

Reconnaissance et dénégation d’une dette, d’‘un seul trait’, divisé, ‘loin du centre’. Et d’une lettre soule, d’un coup de dent an d/t (‘‘Que la lettre soit forte en cette seul indirection’’) un centre s‘effrite e s’attendrit, il se disperse d’un coup de dé: cendre.

Will her ‘confession’ be heard? Will her ‘difference’ change the passage of the story? ‘A Mercy’ is offered, and soon returns to its secret; what rests is the writing lying in “the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you … Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mae…”

The ‘Urn’ of Language

– Par le retour patient, harcelant, ironique de l’exégèse qui n’avance à rien et que les ingénus trouverait indécente, serions-nous en train de modeler l’urne d’un langage pour cette phrase de cendre qu’il a, lui, abandonnée à sa chance et au sort, une vertu d’autodestruction faisant feu toute seule en plain coeur?

Cinder is nothing but a word. But what is a word for consuming itself all the way to its support (the tape-recorded voice or strip of paper, self destruction of the impossible emission once the order is given) to the point of assimilation it without remainder?

Jacques Derrida, Cinders

A gift is offered – will it illuminate Florens’ dream, or disperse its secret in the unforeseeable-to-come? It burns the desire of the dream, producing the ashes of A Mercy that express no aspiration to any Sacred salvation – the confession comes too late! – or any sovereign ‘réleve’: it does not make its address ‘complete’! It simply inscribes itself on the page, to remain in the ‘dust’ – until you understand… In the meanwhile, what or who would take care of its ‘rest’? Where would it ‘rest’? Will the dust, the cinders and embers, provide a ‘resting’ place for its remains? Will there be a chora for its ashes? Here and now, two works of contemporary art seem to be driven by the urgent desire to construct an (im)possible ‘urn’ for cinders: in 2005 and in 2008, from Israel and China, Michal Rovner and Cai Guo-Qiang offer their installations ‘Fields of Fire’ and ‘I Want to Believe’ to the experimentation of the ‘reduction’ and the ‘explosion’ of fire – in the technologies of ‘digitality’ and of ‘gun powder’ lies the matrix-matter of their pyrotechnical writings.90

Je comprends que la cendre n’est rien qui soit au monde, rein qui reste comme un étant. Elle est l’être, plutôt, qu’il y a – c’est un nom de l’être qu’il y a là mais, qui, se donnât (es gibt Asche), n’est rien, reste au-delà de tout ce qui est (konis epekeina tes ousias), reste imprononçable pour rendre possible le dire alors qu’il n’est rien.

‘Fields of Fire’

In Fields of Fire, … [the procession] engulfs everything like the fire of God… Her own challenge was to make a painting with fire.

Sylvére Lotringer, “Borderlines”

Michal Rovner is a Israeli artist, known for her experimental engagement with an infinite generation of individuals who, reduced to miniatures, minuscule signs or groups of silhouettes, write their resistant ‘holding hands’ and ‘eternal walking’ in the desert (‘Outside’, 1990; 1991), on television sets (‘Decoy’, 1991), in Petri dishes (‘Data Zone’, 2000; Culture Plate, 2003), on sacred tablets (‘In Stone’, 2004). What or who are they: lines, graffiti, or living cells? What are they doing, so close to the ground? In truth, they perform ‘there’, on the artistic frame offering their mutant forms to vision, the desire of Rovner herself, who does not believe in art as what sacralises, elevates or saves, but as an act of hospitality, in the intimacy of its touch and smell, to the products of the earth, to what nature produces on its surface: “I always like to be close to the ground, to the earth, I always like to touch the earth, I like to smell it…”91 It is the artist’s poetics, her creative experimentation in following, walking on, tracing down the earth, to find ‘there’ its Sacred art: in 2004/5, during a journey to Kazakhstan, she discovers ‘fire’, the energy that inhabits the earth’s secret recesses, erupting with vertical jets, the immense flames that pierce the ‘fields’ where the oil gas is gathered by the ceaseless labour of drilling machines:

Oil, with all its economic, political and ecological implications, is clearly the focus of global attention. When I arrived there, I looked for an image that would summarize that, but at the same time would also summarize the sense of the place. It is a place without landscape, where landscape offers a bare minimum. Like a blank canvas. I related to two elements; the first were the pump jacks drilling the oil – after all, this is what this whole thing is about, a race for energy, which I see as something both mythical and contemporary. The second thing I saw there was eternal fire.92

Finding a ‘double image’, Rovner knows that the ‘archaic energy’ and the ‘eternal fire’ constitute the capacity of the earth to produce its survival; she also knows that this survival is exposed to the cruellest holocaust: the exploitation of natural resources, the struggle for petroleum, the fights over energy, the corporate greed and massacres, on a world scale, caused by the global appropriation of the ‘black gold’.93 With her digital camera, she might want to document the radical evil of this usage of the earth; in truth, her art is not interested in the sacralisation of the fetish, or in the testimony of its de-sacralisation;94 for Rovner, what matters is the ‘trace’:

I’m not interested in memory that has to do with remembering, but more with the residue of things, the leftovers of things on the mind – not with something that’s occurred, but with the mark that is left. It’s about stripping down the image to its most essential elements”.95

– Quelle différence entre cendre et fumée: celle-ci apparamment se perd, et mieux, seans reste sensible, mail, elle s’élève, elle prend de l‘air, subtilise et sublime.

In ‘Fields of Fire’, the extraordinary work of art as the creative outcome of Rovner’s visit to the petroleum fields, the ‘essential element’ is the ‘image’, the ‘urn’ created by her language, its technological and creative transformation, the attentive recording of the pas, pas-sage and passage of fire into ‘writing’, the metamorphosis from one state to another of its own burning: the LCD screens of the installation inscribe fire as a reduced and single flame; then in the form from which the flame is built; finally, as the result of the process when “the vertical structure becomes horizontal”96. This ‘image’ materializes the band, the trace, its fluidity, the beauty and the colours (red turning into the shades of black, yellow and green) of fire. It is the celebration of Rovner’s ‘signature’;97 the extraordinary ‘song’ of her art (the music that accompanies the work, composed by Heiner Goebbels, treats the material that the artist recorded in Kazakhstan: the sounds of the flames, of the machines, of the liquid in fusion); the capacity of art, through the digital proceedings and the experimental montage, to transform the figura serpentine of the burning fire, in its ‘essential’ energy, into the unforeseeable movement of a cloud, soft and flying away, pushed by the breath of a ‘natural’ wind…

Non, vous traitez sa phrase comme l’accumulation d’une plus-value, comme s’il spéculait su quelque cendre capital. Or c’est d’un retrait qu’il s’agit, pour laisser sa chance à son don sans la moindre mémoire de soi, au bout du compte, pas un corpus, un tas de cendre insoucieux de garder sa forme, un retrait seulement…

‘I Want to Believe’

Cai uses explosives to directly manifest the pure force of energy, not to induce art, but as an art form itself…

Alexandra Munro

“Fields of Fire” has been compared to “the emanations, in constant evolution, of traditional Chinese painting, or of abstract expressionism”98. The reference is important to introduce the work by Cai Guo-Qiang, the artist who, involved in an experimentation with Chinese calligraphy, singularly inscribed with ‘gun powder’ on (Japanese) paper or freely exploding in the air, declares himself an intense lover of nature, a ‘witness’ of its fertilized fields, the fostering agent of its germination:

Maybe the idea is like seeds and a field. A field is where you work and the weather is the climate – in the broader sense of climate – political, artistic, or otherwise. My approach in the way I farm is very much at ease. I know what the soil grows, I know what kind of weather comes when, and I know what these seeds are, but where the seeds fall and how it’s nurtured I let happen naturally. We take advantage of the climate, the weather, whether it’s rain or shine, and the temperature – these are all figured in. So the approach is in a very naturalistic way going with nature to see what may be fostered, what may come out of the field and become fertilized.99

On the background of this ‘natural’ theory, Cai uses the image of the ‘poppy flower’ to describe his work: “Maybe my work sometimes is like the poppy flower. It’s very beautiful, but yet because of circumstances it also represents a poison to society as well. So from gunpowder, from its very essence, you can see so much of the power of the universe – how we came to be. You can express these grand ideas about the cosmos. But at the same time, we live in the world where explosions kill people, and then you have this other immediate context for the work.100 ‘Gun powder’: the artist is talking of the element which, in China, historically, is situated on the threshold of the originary invention of ‘fire-medicine’ (huoyao), a mixture of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur, the elixir discovered by Taoist alchemists in their search of immortality, and the destructive power of fire: the pharmakon.101 In history, and also in its materiality, ‘fire’ is placed in-between its ability to ‘celebrate’ (the firecrackers used for social events) and, at the same time, to ‘kill’ by exploding, burning, and incinerating: sharing with Michal Rovner a passion for pyrotechnical writing, the creative ‘gift’ of Cai, the offer of his artistic ‘urn’, the technical language of his creation, takes care of the traces that fire leaves behind itself, inscribing its ashes on paper, or following them when they raise into the air, leaving no ‘rest’ if not in the mad instant of the sky’s illumination…

L’écriture pyrotechnicienne feint de tout abandoner à ce qui part en fumée, ne laissant là que cendre à ne pas rester.

In the global artistic milieu, in China, in Japan, or in New York, Cai is famous for his spectacular events or displays, on a monumental scale, that realize the collective effort to illuminate the corners of the planet marked by the cruellest holocausts of contemporary history:102 the bombardments between Quanzhou, the city where he was born, and Taiwan; the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and the commencement of the Cold War; the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in 9/11, and in the Madrid train in 2005.103 Beauty and poison, healing and annihilation, illumination and destruction – in Cai, as in Morrison’s A Mercy,104 to witness the desire to write another history, and to celebrate a different pas, pas-sage and passage through cruelty, is an act given without any desire to appropriate the mystery or the secret of ‘fire’, not even in a final address or in the Sacred ‘devoilment’ of (the Last of) of salvation: ‘gun powder’ ignites, explodes, and burns, only to disseminate its ashes in the landscape, falling back on the earth, and, eventually, fertilizing it. “Fire is uncontrollable”, says the artist, and someone remarks that this means an interest in “A wilful loss, a calculated form of utter wasting where there is no gainful return, no accumulation of value”.105 The beauty of fire and its burning ashes lie in a Sacred ‘return’ to the secret that produces it, in the act of its ignition, in the splendour written on the global skies of the world. Derrida would call it ‘“Naked and row ash, cinder as faith”;106 someone would translate it as our own necessary assumption of responsibility: “We, need to make our way, take risk, grope in the dark, feel out way, learn to work in the dark, and that the nocturnal world of faith which is always thought a glass darkly… il faut croire.107 Is it an ‘innocent’ chance that Cai’s work is entitled “I Want to Believe’? The curator of his exhibition in New York understands that the ethical intent of his pyrotechnical art lies in the chance of an answer offered to its addressee, to the audience, to ‘you’: “Cai’s subject matter range from Buddhist metaphysics to cosmological science, from ancient healing systems to contemporary car bombings, and what underpins his diverse practice is the core ideal that art link – if you want to believe – the seen and unseen world”.108

‘Planetary’ Cenere

La centre crue, voilà son gout…

“One cannot help seeing, in the world of Cai Guo-Qiang, a synthesis of the ‘Est and the West’”, says François Jullien.109 In truth, the only ‘synthesis’ offered by the works of art presented here is in the awareness that ‘radical evil’ and ‘cruelty’ resist over the world and throughout history: Israel, Ethiopia, ‘cardbox’ England and its colonies, the America in its colonial and pre-colonial times, Kazakhstan, the skies of the East and the West. Radical evil and cruelty can take the forms of religious orthodoxy, burning the identitarian processes involved in the global diaspora,  practicing  the sacrifice of alterity to produce national canonization, binding life to death, mourning and melancholy… Still, if fire is what burns, with its enflamed strength, at the origin of history illuminating its passage through worldly existence, at the same time, there is the  fire that illuminates the search for ‘A Mercy’ to the humanity in pain, the exploitation of its healing energy, and the beauty of its ashes disseminating in the openess of the skies. The works of art that have helped my writing with their pyrotechnical pas, pas-sage and passage through time and space, in their care and attention for the ‘taste’ of row cinders, seem to indicated (the Last of) responsibility in the burning dream of transformation, expenditure and connectivity, without Phoenix, destiny, or rest – their ‘gift’ exists in the (im)possible call for faith and alliance, the affirmation of ‘belief’ in something that does not exist, or that exist in and as another reality, in the ‘benignity of the unknown’.110Perhaps, this quest for ‘belief’ – the ‘dew’ that falls on the earth and fertilises it, pushed by the natural wind so often evoked – needs to be further extended into the imagination of an altogether different ‘atlas’ of the world – it is the appeal that Raoul Kirchmayr offers as a paradoxical task, the future assumption of the word cenere at the ‘centre’/cendre of l’a-venir:

The task waiting for us seems to be a paradoxical one: to think of an Atlas that does not support the firmament any more, and does not move the stars any longer, because, of the stars, nothing else is left than a luminescent dust, a stardust which, if it is undoubtly dust, it runs the risk to present itself as cinder. I would like to interrogate in this direction the question of dust and cinder, in counterpoint with the question of the luminosity, clarity and transparency of images… this would mean to recognize a genealogy of the cinder, where it gives itself as the rest of a historical-cultural process (the disappearance of the mythical firmament where Atlas found its place) and, at the same time, as the symptom of the disaster (the actual global ‘constellation’ that disjoints, while uniting, the Occident from the Orient). As a hypothesis, cinder would be nothing else but stardust, which has lost its luminescence, a grey dust as the last residue of a time that seems without promise or hope. We need to abandon the idea that we can find an orientation again thanks to the old spheres, while it is now a question of finding the path again in a world that has turned into dust, becoming, at the present, globus… A forgetful and dubious Atlas, who supports a sphere in her hands, playing, almost trifling, with it, surrounded by a thin stardust, that nothing assures that it is nothing else but dust or cinder…111

When I started thinking of cinders, I did not know I would be dealing with a question relevant to the planet, to the firmament. I know now that our task for l’à-venir is to extend the legacy of the (im)possible ‘gift’ of cinders and, in so doing, perhaps, be able to ‘answer’ Derek Jarman’s mourners, weeping at the Sacred holocausts of our contemporary times …


1. The book Kicking the Pricks, The Estate of Derek Jarman, 1987, was devoted by D. Jarman to The Last of England (1987). See, also,

2. L. Milesi, “Thinking (Through) the Desert (la pensée du désert) With(in) Jacques Derrida”, in M. Mcquillan (ed.), The Politics of Deconstruction. Jacques Derrida and the Other of Philosophy, London, Pluto Press, 200, emphases Derrida’s “appeal of/to the desert as ‘a place’ to be surveyed and traversed by thinking to be thought through for thinking itself to ‘take place’ or take a radically other place”, p.173. See J. Derrida, Parages, Paris, Galilée, 1986.

3. J. Derrida, “Psychoanalysis Searches the States of its Soul: The Impossible Beyond of a Sovereign Cruelty”, in Without Alibi, ed. by P. Kamuf, Stanford, Stanford U.P., 2002, pp. 238-280.

4. J. Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, Stanford, Stanford U.P., 1999, p. 131.

5. J. Derrida, “Psychoanalysis Searches…”, cit., p.243.

6. J. Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge. The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone”, in J. Derrida – G. Vattimo, Religion, Cambridge, Polity, 1998, p. 2.

7. Ibid. Quoting Religion within the limits of reason alone by Emmanuel Kant in his title, Derrida explains that it is “a book on the radical evil (what of reason and of radical evil today? and if the ‘return of religion’ were not without a relationship with the – modern or postmodern, at once – return at least of certain phenomena of radical evil? does radical evil destroy or institute the possibility of religion?)”, p. 41.

8. J. Derrida – S. Agosti, Spurs. Nietzsche’s Style, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 163.

9. J. Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, or the Prosthesis of Origin, Stanford, Stanford U. P., 1998, p. 65.

10. Cfr. G. C. Spivak, Death of a Discipline (The Wellek Lectures in Critical Theory), Columbia U. P. , 2003.

11. There is also an ‘editorial’ return of the Sacred: in Italy, in 2010, Mimesis republished the important contribution to the debate by Mario Perniola, Più-che-sacro, più-che profane (originally, in Fondamenti, n. 4, in 1986).

12. I am referring to the intense epistolary exchange between C. Clément and J. Kristeva devoted to The Feminine and the Sacred, New York, Columbia U. P., 2001; and to its ‘return’ in The Sacred and the Feminine. Imagination and Sexual Difference, ed. by G. Pollock and V. Turvey Sauron, London, I. B. Tauris, 2007.

13. J. Derrida, “There Is No One Narcissism”, in Points… Interviews 1974-94, ed. by E. Weber, Stanford, Stanford U. P., 1995, p. 207.

14. S. Lotringer, “Borderlines”, in M. Rovner, Fields, Gottingen, Steidl, 2005, p. 326.

15. G. Bennigton, “Homage to Glas”, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2007, emphasis that “The concept of écriture invokes an interminable effort to achieve experience. Learning to write one’s life is also learning to discover or stay with a difference, to abide a labor of the negative in oneself and – let me not overlook Derrida the devoted teacher – to encourage it in his many audiences”, p.348.

16. F. Bartkowski shares my trajectory in her most inspiring “Rereading Jacques Derrida: Afterwards 2005”, Differences, 16 (3), 2005; here, the scholar devotes her writing to the thinking of Derrida on the Holocaust, to “the ‘fragile urn of words’ that fail to measure up but that are obliged to try. That the grief for a gift of words, even the simple sentence of the belatedness of the “cinders there are” makes a terrible tale of a place that is no longer what it was yet is nevertheless where it was, in its there-ness. The memory of the poisoned heart of history. And somehow the gift of Derrida is that I am again able to sift through the ashes, sweep up the cinders of this history of remains”, p. 101.

17. I will quote from J. Derrida, Ciò che resta del fuoco, Firenze, Sansoni, 1984 (French-Italian), and from the English translation by N. Lukacker, Cinders, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1991 (see, also, N. Luckacher, “Shakespeare’s Cinders”, in Demonic Figures. Shakespeare and the Question of Conscience, Ithaca, Cornell U. P., 1994). See the interesting installation ‘Feu la cendre’ by Fabio Scacchioli, Castelbasso, 2006 – v=fe7zVUITwA8

18. See J. Derrida, “Istrice 2: Ick bünn all hier”, in Points…, cit., p. 322 (“Che cos’è la poesia?” is published, in French and in English, in the same volume, pp.288.-299).

19. “Conversazione con Amos Gitai”, in Amos Gitai. Cinema forza di pace, a cura di D. Turco, Genova, Le Mani, 2002, p. 113 (n.t.).

20. In “Filming Israel: A Conversation: Amos Gitai and Annette Michelson”, October, Vol. 98, Autumn, 2001, p. 70, the director remarks, “you build a universe from your imagination. Perhaps that’s how I get back to my architectural origins”.

21. Ibid., p. 68. Gitai here explains that “Kadosh is set in a city that has been a spiritual center for three thousand years, with each neighbourhood a microcosm of a separate culture, and together they form a mosaic of cultures: Copt, Armenian, Christians, Orthodox Russians, Muslim, Jewish, and others”.

22. J. Hillis Miller, “Derrida Enisled”, Critical Inquiry, Winter, 2007, p. 271, is interested in Derrida’s concepts of ethics and of community; in the section of his article “There Are Only Islands”, he reads the philosopher’s intervention in “Faith and Knowledge”, cit., through the “the whole vocabulary, crisscrossing biology and human society, of words with mun or mon: common, community, immunity, auto-immunity”.

23. In J. Dupont, “Director’s Eye on a Hidden World of Jerusalem”, International Herald Tribune, 15 May 1999. In “Conversation between Amos Gitai and Peter Cowie”, the director explains, “I wanted images of three cities, and when I did Jerusalem, I had to touch on religion because Jerusalem is about religion – the city’s beauty, its semi-aristocratic way of looking at the rest of the planet is about religion – it’s a city that produced ideas that indoctrinated two thirds of the planet.” –

24. The position on the ‘border’ is treated by J. Derrida, “Pas”, Parages, cit. H. Cixous, “Jacques Derrida as Proteus Unbound”, Critical Inquiry, Winter, 2007, p. 392, in interpreting it as a part of the philosophy’s ‘topology of the incalculable’, reflects on the paradoxes of its – impossible – limit, “so that a what can arrive. If it is at the border that everything arrives, happens or fails to happen, no scene, no place or landscape is as lacking in the lack of border than this interminable expanse”.

25. A. Gitai, “Filming Israel”, cit., pp. 69-70.

26. Gitai continues: “The fascinating thing about the Old Testament is that it’s not angelic. The writers were courageous, they criticized the power of kings.” Cit. in J. Dupont, op. cit.

27. H. Cixous, op. cit., p. 391, interrogates the ‘mirror language’ of the ich, according to ‘anagrammatic inversion’: “Ich? That is to say, the German I, a soft ich whose homonym is Ish – man in Hebrew, that is to say, Ich I – a piece of the fish Ichthus, that is to say, by reinversion, chi, the letter of the chiasmus, junction letter, crossroads, interchange, quadrifurcum”. The author is referring to Derrida’s essay “+ R (into the Bargain)”, in The Truth of Painting, Chicago, Chicago U. P, 1987, pp. 149-181, where the philosopher discusses Valerio Adami’s “Studies for a drawing after Glas”, in preparation for the works ICH and CHI (CHIMERE for the whole), which received their titles from this text.

28. B. Cardullo, In search for cinema: writings on international film art, McGill-Queen University Press, 2004, p. 209.

29. Gitai, cit. in J. Dupont, op. cit.

30. H. Cixous, op. cit., p.414.

31. E. Gezzi, “Li e altrove”, in Amos Gitai, cit. p. 21 (n.t). The ‘lateral gaze’ is part of the use of Gitai’s ‘plan-sequence’, which constitutes, according to S. Toubiana, Exil et territoires. Le cinema d’Amos Gitai, Cahiers du Cinema, 2003, p.165, ‘Kadosh’’s technical ‘sacred’ device. The critic focuses on the opening scene of the film, which portraits Meir who, as every morning, repeats his prayers to God; here the camera follows the religious ritual for as long as it is needed: during the six minutes of the man’s folding and unfolding of his tsitsit and tephillim, the ‘pact’ between the ‘archaic’ Sacred and its ‘profane’ (cinematographic) recording, the ‘contract’ between the ritual of religion and the ritual of cinema, is celebrated, in their common ‘ceremony’, by Gitai’s magisterial usage of the ‘plan-sequence’.

32. A. Gitai, cit. in J. Dupont, op. cit, explains, “When she finds out that she can reproduce – her husband is sterile – she keeps silent; she is repudiated and breaks”.

33. D. Turco, “Partenze. Ritorni”, in Amos Gitai, cit., p. 47 (n.t.).

34. The link between the ‘rest’ and ‘superstition’, which will soon impact on Rivka’s destiny, is what J. Derrida, “The pocket-size interview”, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2007, defines as a ‘theory of the marginal’: “I am looking for a transition between theft and magic and then superstition. What if we talk about superstition starting form the work superstition, which has to do with the remains, with the supplement, with something that exceeds, something that therefore lacks? I am persuaded that, to give account of phenomena as those that are classified in the West under the name of superstition, we need a theory, if you will, of the rest, of the remains. Of the rest in all the senses of this French word: what does not allow itself to be counted in, what exceeds ration, the count or the account. Superstition is that of which no account can be given in a rationality that attempts to erase the rest, the remains, or the revenant, the ghost, right? I think that if there is no rest, there would be no magic, no superstitious. Therefore, to take an interest in the rest, in the remains, I also try,l precisely, to give an account of phenomena like those of superstition, of magic…I think that all these phenomena referred to as marginal, referred to as superstition, magic, sorcery, envy, jealously, spell casting, and so on are related to this rest or remains that, in some way, exceed ontology, which exceed the thought of being, the thought of presence, the way of determines the rest as a residue or as substance”, p. 380..

35. It was ‘fire’ already in the past: ‘Kadosh’ represents Gitai’s “homage to the shtetls that were burned and destroyed in Europe. It looks poor because the Jews were poor people until the 20th century – Jews from North Africa were peddlers who had no right to own land, real nomads, Bedouins. Their intellectual fervour kept them alive.” Cit. in J. Dupont, op. cit. In 2011,  Gitai’s explicit interest in the ‘remains’ pushed him to organize the exhibition entitled ‘Traces’, at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

36. E. Lévinas, Dal sacro al santo. La tradizione talmudica nella rilettura dell’ebraismo postcritstiano, Roma, Città Nuova, 1976, p. 86 (n.t.).

37. Cfr. A. Mizuta Lippit,“The Shadow Archive: From Light to Cinder”, Tympanum 4 (2000).

38. Cfr. M. Taussig, “What Color is the Sacred?”, Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2006.

39. It is the question of ‘auto-immunity’, constitutive of  all ‘auto-co-immunity’: “This excess above and beyond the living, whose life only has absolute value by being worth more than life, more than itself – this is in short, what opens the space of death, that is linked to the automaton (exemplarily ‘phallic’), to technics, the machine, the prosthesis; in a word, to the dimensions of auto-immune and auto-sacrificial supplementarity, to this death-drive that is silently at work in every community, every auto-co-immunity, constituting it as such, in its iterability, in its heritage, its spectral tradition. Community as com-mon auto-immunity, no community is possible that would not cultivate its own auto-immunity, a principle of sacrificial self-destruction ruining the principle of self-protection (that of maintaining its self-integrity intact) and this in view of some sort of invisible and spectral sur-vival”. At the same time, however, for Derrida, it is this process that opens the community to its ‘other’: “This self-contesting attestation keeps the auto-immune community alive, which is to say, open to something other and more than itself: the other, the future, death, freedom, the coming or the love of the other, the time and space of a spectralizing messianicity beyond all messianism. It is there that the possibility of religion persists: the religious bond (scrupulous, respectful, modest, reticent, inhibited) between the value of life, its absolute dignity, and the theological machine, the machine for making gods’”. J. Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge”, cit., p. 51.

40. J. Derrida, “There is No One Narcissism”, cit., p. 203, refers to his memory, legacy, and experience of Algeria, calling forth a ‘kind of work’, the ‘adventure’, the ‘risk’, that would imply “To invent, to invent a language, to invent modes of anamnesis… For me, it is this adventure that interests me the most in a certain way but which still today to me practically inaccessible.”

41. As before in ‘Kadosh’, in “Teza” it is the director of photography Mario Masini who captures the light and the shade, the majesty of the African landscape, which is the strength and beauty of the film.

42. The ‘guardian of the sacred’ is an essential presence in Gerima’s film ‘Sankofa’ (1993): after being admonished to “return to the source” by a guardian of the sacred space, where so many enslaved Africans suffered as they departed for the New World, the character Mona has a transformative revelation that details the experiences of Shola, a house slave on the Lafayette plantation in the Americas.

43. M. Z. Seitz, “Lacking Shelter at Home and Abroad”, The New York Times, April 2, 2010, describes Anberber as “a psychologically complex individual with an Everyman’s charm”.

44. The reference to the Italian colonization is in the insistence of the camera on the monument of Mussolini in Addis Abeba, where the ‘Witness’ often seats and reflects in silence. See, on the question, the film by Luca Guadagnino, ‘Inconscio italiano’ (2011), presented at the Festival of Locarno, Switzerland.

45. ‘Fire’ haunts the language of the film’s commentaries: “Few contemporary films burn with the passion and authenticity of “Teza,” Haile Gerima’s elaborate drama chronicling three decades in the life of an Ethiopian man anguished by his country’s social and political crises.” Frank Scheck, “Teza – Film Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, April 06, 2010. For the critic, ‘Teza’ deals with ‘cure’ and ‘indemnity’: “When tribal elders fear that the new arrival is cursed and begin a ritual to cure him, it cues a series of flashbacks depicting his leaving his country in 1974 to move to Germany and study medicine. There, he and his friends embrace socialism and work from afar to overthrow the dictatorial Emperor Haile Selassie. Returning to his homeland upon the rise of power of Haile Mariam Mengistu in the 1980s, he soon discovers that one form of repression has been replaced by another.”

46. For Gerima’s cinematographic poetics, see “A Moment with…Haile Gerima”, ‘Research Channel’ – p4ZmNclDqFw

47. J. Derrida, Feu la cendre, cit., p. 41.

48. Gerima, cit. by Larry Rohter “For Filmmaker, Ethiopia’s Struggle Is His Own”, The New York Times, March 29, 2010.

49. Ibidem. The actor playing Anberber is Aaron Arefe, a 29-year-old Ethiopian-American.

50. The words ‘totalization’, ‘testimony’ and ‘testament’ vs. ‘discontinuity’, ‘displacement’ and ‘dissemination’, repeat the passage entre la letter ‘t’ and the letter ‘d’ in the same play between the sounds of ‘centre’ and ‘cendre’, like a partitura resonating in the ‘refrain’ – “plus tard… une autre voix” – of Feu la cendre when it is recorded in Antoinette Fouque présente Feu la cendre lu par l’auteur et Carole Bouchet, Paris, Des Femmes, 1987.

51. Cit. in L. Rohter, op. cit.

52. J. Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. II, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 142.

53. See the beautiful “Nostalgeria” by R. Kirchmayr, aut aut, n.327, luglio-settembre 2005, p.145 (in the section ‘Words of Deconstruction’, pp.132-148).

54. Gerima uses the word ‘self-exile’ to describe his diasporic experience. He arrived in the United States in 1967, to study theatre at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago; his Peace Corps teachers in Ethiopia, impressed by his talent, had arranged for his admission. Still, he was not prepared for the politics of race in America, and initially felt estranged from the whites, whose lawns and gardens he tended to support himself, and also from the African-Americans. He then transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he won an acting award and developed ties to the Pan-African black-power movement. His cinema drew attention in the mid-1970s with ‘Harvest: 3000 Years’, about an Ethiopian peasant family struggling to survive under feudalism; it was filmed as Haile Selassie’s imperial rule was collapsing. The film led to the start of Gerima’s troubles with the Derg, the Communist military junta that replaced Haile Selassie. The regime declared his film ‘the property of the Ethiopian people’, and would only allow him to make another movie in his homeland if he agreed to accept what they called their ‘jurisdiction’ over his work. “When they said that, I couldn’t wait to take the plane out, because I knew my freedom was gone,” Gerima says, “I would have died. I don’t fit well in dogma of any kind, even the dogma I create myself, because the next day I get up betraying it.”

55. Gerima explored the disillusionment of African-American veterans returning from the Vietnam War to urban poverty and hopelessness in his ‘Ashes and Embers’ (1982).

56. ‘Repetition’ plays here a central role; J. Derrida, “A Certain Impossible Possibility of Saying the Event”, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2007, would say that “repetition must already be at work in the singularity of the event, and with the repetition, the erasure of the first occurrence is already underway – whence loss, mourning, and the posthumous, sealing the first moment of the event, as originary. Mourning is already there. One cannot avoid mixing tears with hospitality. Death is on the scene, in a way”, p. 453.

57. In the cinema of Gerima, ‘storytelling’ links to the origin – his mother was a teacher; his father was a narrator; he was taught by his grandmother: “Before I had a camera or even electricity she taught me to ignite my imagination. I sat fireside countless nights, imagining the vivid details of the stories she told”. “A Note from Haile Gerima”, in ‘More’ –

58. J. Derrida, “This Strange Institution Called Literature: An Interview with J. Derrida”, in Acts of Literature, ed. by D. Attridge, London, Routledge, 1992, p. 34.

59. Cfr. M. Z. Seitz, op. cit.

60. Ibidem. The critic describes this section of the film as constructed with “disruptive flash cuts and symbolically loaded juxtapositions; the portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin replacing those of the deposed Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie; a leaky faucet summoning repressed memories of a bloody victim of mob violence”.

61. H. Gerima, “A Notes…”, cit.

62. Gerima cit. in L. Rohter, op. cit. The expression ‘responsible memory’ comes from C. Piccino, “Africa, pianeta virtuale”, Il Manifesto Alias, 21 marzo, 2009; for the film’s ‘imperfection’,often  remarked by Gelima, his sister Salome, who helps his films’ production, recalls that “Even to bring equipment to the locations was difficult and unforgettable… The electricity came from the village generator, which sometimes would be turned off as we were filming, and so we had to negotiate. More than money, patience was required.” Derrida would call it “the vulnerable tenderness… the patience of a cinder”, Cinders, cit.

63. R. Gasché, “Patocka and Derrida on Responsibility”, Critical Inquiry, Winter 2007, p. 308, would say that “… responsibility for and toward the tradition is inevitably heretical”.

64. A. Rich, “Notes toward a Politics of Location”, in Bread and Poetry. Selected Prose, Norton & Norton, 1984, pp. 213-214. I will here be inspired by the ‘eccentric’ bond/difference between Adrienne Rich and Jacques Derrida, as critically remarked by N. J. Holland, “Introduction”, Feminist Interpretation of Jacques Derrida, The Pennsylvania State U. P., 1997, when she states that “While one might not expect to find Adrienne Rich quoted in a book on the work of Jacques Derrida, nor necessarily to find Richard Rorty quoted in a book on contemporary feminist thought, both of the above passages would suggest at least some affinity between Derrida’s deconstructive project, with its primary focus on the ‘silences, the absences, the nameless, the unspoken, the encoded’ in traditional philosophical and literary text (the logocentric tradition) and a feminist project that would insist on the absences of women and their lives from that tradition. At the same time, however, the same quotations underscore a deep tension between the two projects: Rich’s search for the ‘true knowledge of women’ can easily seem to be thwarted by deconstruction’s continued focus, albeit a highly critical one, on male texts and male thinkers, the ending series of fathers begetting themselves upon their sons in an incestuous and fertile, as well as virile, hom(me)osexuality. Worse yet, the very concept of the true knowledge of anything, but perhaps especially of women, would violate the deepest of deconstructive canon. How can these two projects be reconciled?”, pp. 1-2

65. In Glas, Paris, Galilée, 1974, J. Derrida refers to Leopardi: “La ginestra de Leopardi, l’odorata ginestra pousse ‘su l’arida schiena/del formidabili monte/Sterminator Vesevo’. L’exergue est de saint Jean. Et l’on y trouve une fleur de genêt qui se ‘contente du désert’, des “champs semés’/Des cendres infécondes et couverts de lave pétrifiée/Qui sonne sous les pas du voyager’. La laves brûlante coule comme du lait ‘dell’inesausto grembo’, du sein inépuisable. Le ‘souple genêt’ qui incline sa ‘tête innocente’ n’aura pas choisi sa ‘demeure’ et son ‘lieu natale’. La ‘fortune’ seule en a décidé”, p.78.

66. For J. Kincaid’s ‘flower-writing’, see her My Garden (Book), New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999; (ed.), My Favourite Plant. Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999; Among Flowers. A Walk to the Himalaya, The National Geographic Society, 2005. The story of her books’ burning is narrated in My Brother, ‪Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998.

67. H. Cixous dedicates her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, New York, Columbia U.P., 1994, to the ‘descent’ of the Biblical angels in the secret recesses of the earth, to indicate the human fear of mortality, but also the necessity to recognize physical decay, corporeality and death. See also the wonderful poem by A. Rich, ‘Diving in the Wreck”:”There is a ladder / The ladder is always there / Hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner. /We know what it is for, we who have used it. / Otherwise/ It is a piece of maritime floss/ Some sundry equipment…”-  see

68. J. Derrida, “Faith…”, cit., p. 22.

69. The relationship between ‘madness’ and ‘fire’, in the history of deconstruction, has illuminated the important discussion between J. Derrida and M. Foucault;see J. Derrida, “Cogito and the History of Madness”, originally given as a lecture and printed in 1963, as reprinted in Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass into English in 1978; and M. Foucault, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire”, originally printed as an appendix to the 1972 French edition of Histoire de la folie, then in Oxford Literary Review 4:1 (Autumn 1979), translated by Geoff Bennington, and reprinted in J. Faubion, ed., Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, New York: New Press, 1998, slightly modified. into English by Geoffrey Bennington. See, also, J. Derrida,“‘Etre juste avec Freud’: l’histoire de la folie à l’âge de la psychanalyse”, in Penser la folie: essais sur Michel Foucault, Paris, Galilée, 1992.
In revealing the gesture of vigilance of ‘a certain madness’, in “A Madness Must Watch over Thinking”, in Points…, cit., Derrida repeats that “I must try to write in such a way that the language of the other does not suffer in mine, suffers me to come without suffering from it, receives the hospitality without getting lost or integrated there…This has to be invented at every moment, with every sentence, without assurance, without absolute guardrails. Which is as much as to say that madness, a certain ‘madness’ must keep a lookout over every step, and finally watch over thinking, as reason does also”, p. 363.

70. J. Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, Penguin, 1968. See my “L’a-topos di un’interrogazione: Wide Sargasso Sea di Jean Rhys”, in Intrecci e Contaminazioni, Atti del XIV Congresso Nazionale dell’Associazione Italiana di Anglistica, Venezia, Supernova, 1993.

71. J. Derrida, “There is No One Narcissism”, cit., p. 206.

72. It is “very unlucky to kill” the – Phoenix-like – parrot Coco: “He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire” (p. 25). In his reading of Robinson Crusoe by D. Defoe, J. Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. II, cit., dedicates an important discussion to the ‘parrot’ Loreto.

73. In Wide Sargasso Sea, three ‘dreams’ bring more poetry into its already-poetic narration, letting ‘another memory’ emerge in the novel: “One has to imagine everything that in a dream would be whirling between ellipsis and election, evasion and designation. Everything would happen without transition, absolutely within the heart. You would see the horizon closed up, for alive it could not be picked up with the fingers of thought. One has to aspire to the thing, pray it, come, and let it be though the miracle of another memory, right away in the heart, inviolable in the inviolate. It would form one body with the heart, this animal fallen from the ground like the poet cliché angel falls from heaven”. H. Cixous, “Derrida as…”, cit., p. 408.

74. In the novel, as in the postcolonial literature it has originated, the question of ‘naming’ is always under scrutiny – maybe because, as J. Derrida, On the Name, Stanford, Stanford U.P., 1993, explains, “To give a name … One can have doubts about it from the moment when the name not only is nothing, in any case is not the ‘thing’ that it names, not the ‘nameable’ or the renewed, but also risks to bind, to enslave or to engage the other, to link the called, to call him/her to respond even before any decision or any deliberation, even before any freedom. An assigned passion, a prescribed alliance as much as a promise”, p. 84.

75. J. Derrida, Spurs, cit.

76. In the ‘formal’ interest of the novel, “The Prelude” by William Wordsworth is quoted twice by the man, as if his literary proficiency were obsessed by the poem: “Words rush through my head (deeds too). Words. Pity is one of them. It gives me no rest. Pity like naked new-born babe striding the blast” (p.130); “(There is a cool wind blowing now. A cold wind. Does it carry the babe born to stride the blast of hurricanes?)” (pp. 131).

77. G. C. Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard U.P., 1999, p. 127.

78. T. Morrison, Beloved, New York, Plume, 1987. See my “… come un dono dal cielo: Amatissima di Toni Morrison”, in Donne e proprietà. Un’analisi comparata tra scienze storico-sociali, letterarie, linguistiche e figurative, Napoli, Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1996.

79. See J. Derrida, “To unsense the Subjectile”, in J. Derrida, – P. Thévenin, The secret art of Antonin Artaud, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1998.

80. See J. Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. II, cit., in his attention to the technology of the ‘wheel’.

81. Cfr. B. C. Freeman “Loves Labor. Kant, Isis, and Toni Morrison’s Sublime”, in The Feminine Sublime. Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 105-148.

82. J. Derrida, Béliers. Le dialogue ininterrompu: entre deux infinis, le poèm, Paris, Galilée, 2003, p. 39.

83. The ‘affirmation’ is reinforced, in the novel, by the figure of Edward Boldwin, the white man who helps Sethe after the crime. During the ‘spell’ of the community women, Sethe mistakes him for a slave-owner who arrives for his last act of cruelty, and tries to kill him; in that very moment, Boldwin is thinking that “Human life is holy, all of it” (p. 260)

84. A. Seal, in

85. D. H. Schleicher, “A Review of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy” – 2009 04/12/a-review-of-toni-morrisons-a-mercy.

86. See my La lingua di Cleopatra. Sopravivvenze e traduzioni decostruttive, Milano, Marietti, 2009.

87. The scene of Jacob’s acceptance of the ‘gift’ of the girl, focuses on the question of ‘responsibility’ – it is set at Jublio, the estate of D’Ortega, the Portuguese slaves-owners, who kept silent about “the scars or wounds like misplaced veins tracing their skin” (p. 259). During dinner, “They both spoke of the gravity, the unique responsibility, this untamed world offered them; its unbreakable connection to God’s work and the difficulties they endured on his behalf. Caring for ill or recalcitrant labor was enough, they said, for canonization” (p. 20).

88. The novel insists on the ‘frontier world’, the Eastern seaboard of 17th century America, by concentrating on the construction of the ‘iron gate’; this ’sign’ inscribes on the page the dialectics between ‘Heaven’ and ‘the world of the damned’- as Lina remarks, in her rejection of the ‘sinister gate’, convinced that, in order to build its partition, too many trees are being destroyed – “without asking for their permission” (p.51).

89. Toni Morrison could not choose the title for the novel: “She fiddled around with the word ‘mercy’, but that didn’t feel quite right; “the book isn’t about large-scale compassion or pity or grace”, says Morrison. Then, with the help of her editor, she put an article in front: A Mercy. With one small word, the title no longer suggested “the large world of people doing nice things or … religious versions of God’s mercy, but a human gesture – just mercy – and that worked for me.” Cit. in M. Norris, “Toni Morrison Finds A Mercy in Servitude”, /templates/story/story.php?storyId=95961382 (on this website, the writer reads extracts from the novel).

90. M. Omer, “Michael Rovner’s Fields of Fire”, in M. Rovner, op. cit., says thay “The matrix that Michael Rovner weaves with the flames of fire oscillates between the convergence of the motion of the flames into a soft, containing, womb-like, feminine flow, and the upwardly jutting eruptions that contradict and injure this movie, like a tsunami wave that scatters and destroys everything on its path”, p. 347. The author compares Rovner’s art with Derrida’s notion of ‘legacy’ as expressed in J. Derrida- E. Roudinesco, De quoi demain… Dialogue, Paris, Fayard-Galiléee, 2001: “Yes, one must (and this must is inscribed in the very heritage received), one must do everything in order to appropriate for oneself a past that one knows remains at bottom inappropriable, wither it has to do with philosophical memory, with the precedence of a language, of a culture, or with filiation in general. To reaffirm – what does that mean? Not only to accept it, this heritage, but to restart it differently and to keep it alive… we will therefore have to start from this apparent and formal contradiction between the passivity of the reception and the decision to say ‘yes’, and then to select, to filter, to reinterpret, and therefore to transform, not to leave intact, undamaged, to not leave safe even that which we wish to respect before everything. And after everything. To not leave safe, to save, perhaps, again, but without any illusion of a final salvation”. As far as  C. Guo-Qiang is concerned, the catalogue Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe, New York, The Guggenheim Foundation, 2008, p. 91, emphasises the technical apparatus of his experiments with fire: « Cai frequently uses sheets of Japanese hemp paper whose manufacture he specially commissions; the fibrous structure withstands and absorbs the impact of the explosion and the charring of the paper. Often placing these sheets on the floor, he arranges gunpowder fuses of varying potency, loose explosive powders, and cardboard stencils to create silhouetted forms over the paper’s surface. Here and there, he might lay wooden boards or sheets of glassine to effectively disperse the patterns resulting from smoke and the impact of the explosion. Cai then sometimes weights these elements in place with rocks to intensify the explosion. Once the setup is completed, he ignites a fuse at one end of the work with a stick of burning incense. Then, with loud bangs, the ignited gunpowder rips across the surface of the paper, lighting the array of explosives according to its designated pattern and engaging artist and onlookers in a momentary encounter with the substantial power of explosive destruction. A second or two later, the paper lies in clouds of acrid smoke. Assistants run to stamp out any embers with rags. Finally, the drawing is removed from the floor and hung up vertically for the artist’s inspection ». In the catalogue, in particular, see “Cai Guo-Quiang: I Want to Believe” by the curator A. Munroe, pp. 20-41, and “Image Explosion: Global Readymades” by D. Joselit (pp.58-60), who connects Cai’s ‘explosive images’, expressive of cycles of violence, to Derrida’s ‘circulation of images’, as expressed in his intervention on ‘auto-immunity’ in G. Borradori (ed.), Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago, Chicago U.P., 2003.

91. See “Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Michal Rovner”, http://www.

92. See the transcript of the radio interview – johntusainterview/ rovner_transcript.shtm

93. Rovner has often devoted her attention to the question of the ‘holocaust’; in ‘Living Landscapes’, 2005, she worked for the new Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, Cit. in R. Durand, “Michal Rovner, Experience and Space”, in M. Rovner, op. cit., p. 323.

94.t “It was a biological theatre of cruelty”, was Baudrillard’s comment when he visited  J Rovner’s exhibition. J. Baudrillard – S. Lotringer, “Too Much is Too Much”, in The Conspiracy of Art, New York, Semiotexte, 2005.

95. Cit. in J. Dykstra, “Michal Rovner: Crossing Borders”, Art on Paper, Sep-Oct. 2002.

96. M. Omer, op. cit., p. 346.

97. The artist remarks that “For me the work relates to a timeline of changes, a seismograph of life, private or global or another form of life with the consecutive changes which occur”. The question of the ‘signature’, in its formal link with  the ‘seismograph’, also appears in M. Omer, op. cit., p.346, who says, “From a different viewpoint one could see a seismographic drawing that follows geological strata or a flow of lava pouring heavily form the maw of an erupting volcano… From a distance the layers of fire look like an expanse floating in the air, upon which are drawn curves made by a seismograph that follows and documents an energy which is activated from within its own innermost powers”. On the word ‘seism’, often used by Derrida, H. Cixous, “Derrida as …”, cit., p. 415, notices that “Séisme is a word you’re fond of, as if cradling its letters attenuated the violence of the crash. Se-isthmus, the ishthmus of self. Seism, saying – an almost English word. Everything lives otherwise”. In the same issue of Critical Inquiry, W.J.T. Mitchell, “Picturing Terror: Derrida’s Autoimmunity”, associates the philosopher to “a seismologist who traces the disturbances, its normativities and symmetries”, p. 286. See, also, J. Derrida, “Les Yeux de la langue. I- L’abime et le volcan. II- Sèculariser la langue. Le volcan, le feu, les Lumiéres”, Derrida, Paris, L’Herne, 2004 (in the section devoted to “Penser autrement – La possibilità de l’Impossible”).

98. See “Fields” at the Gallery Jeu de Paume, Paris document&idArt=88&lieu=1&idDoc=92

99. See

100. See

101. See pdf

102. Cai himself has worked on ‘Seismogram, Electroencephalogram, and Electrocardiogram from Fetus Movement’ (silkscreen and metallic marker on paper). See I Want to Believe, cit., p.141.

103. ‘Transient Rainbow’ is the title of the project, dated 2002, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, as the first pyrotechnical event in New York after the terrorist attack; ‘Black Rainbow’, 2005, is the work devoted to the commemoration of the victims of March 11, 2004, in the train bombing in Madrid, Spain.

104. ‘Cai’s interested in the ‘gift’ is celebrated his ‘Reflection: A gift from Iwaki’ (2004) that shows the skeleton of a wrecked vessel, dredged from the beaches of Iwaki, full of the porcelain statuettes of the Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), Bodhisattva of mercy”.

105. M. Kwon, “The Art of Expenditure”, in Cai Guo-Qiang, op. cit., p. 67, insists that “His explosions leave behind traces of ash.”

106. J. Derrida, Cinders, cit., p. 45.

107. J. D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. Religion without Religion, Bloomington, Indiana U.P., 1997, p. 314.

108. A. Munro, op. cit., p. 22.

109. See F. Jullien, “The Great Image Has No Form: A tribute to Cai Guo-Qiang”, in Cai Guo-Qiang: An Arbitrary History, Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2002, p. 28.

110. Cai’s largest series of artworks is called Project for Extra-terrestrials. Munroe, op. cit, remarks that “For the artist, imagining the existence of alien intelligence compels a contemplation of alternative, coexisting, or multiple realities that is akin to the production of art”, p. 20.

111. See R. Kirchmayr, “Atlante del disastro”, aut aut, n. 350, aprile-giugno 2011, pp. 183-184.

Silvana Carotenuto is an Associate Professor at the University of Naples L'Orientale', Italy, where she has been the Director of the Centre for Postcolonial Studies, and teaches Contemporary English Literature. Theoretically, she is a specialist in deconstruction and écriture feminine, translating into Italian Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing by H. Cixous, (Columbia, 2000). Her publications include various books, including La lingua di Cleopatra. Traduzioni e sopravivvenze decostruttive - Cleopatra's Language. Deconstructive Translations and Survivals, (Milan, Marietti 2009) and articles on female writing, postcolonial poetry and contemporary visual art.
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