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Chapter 9. White ink – Hélène Cixous, writing and breath

Writing is the fear of being out of breath. Instead of being a voice, speaking up, never losing any sound, even if it is only noise one produces, writing has to break up, stop and continue constantly. Writing ends in the most unfortunate moments. Right here, right now. But: we cannot recognize when writing is out of breath, can we?

The echo of voices seemingly is never out of breath. The reverb fades but only because of entropic loss of energy. In a vacuum there would be no echo, there is no sound. So, sound and voice are something extraordinarily earthly. And it is dominated by the phallic male subject as not only Derrida pointed out in his way to a grammatology focusing on writing and text. Logos or gramme – breath or water. Is this about the opposition or the difference? The opposition (Gegensatz) is not differentiation. Breath and water are different, but no opposites in the sense voice and writing, nature and culture, female and male are set. 

It is Hélène Cixous whose writings on breaths (“Souffles”, 1975)1 point out the thin line between the female voice (in French la voix) and the female writing (in French l’ecriture): for French speaker voice and writing are feminine, female. Is this only of concern for linguists?

Try and write like Anne Garréta did in “Sphinx”2 without gendering language. But language is the Freudian child game of “Fort!” and “Da!” which Cixous cites, being “Fort!”, “Da!” male and female, inhale and exhale. But it does not stop there: it is not only an opposition of two gender, but also the differentiation, which leads beyond the two: there is more than male and female – everyone can push language towards the surplus tipping over the binary code inscribed by patriarchy. As Derrida mentions in his foreword to the English reader of Cixous’ writings: 

“Hélène has a genius for making the language speak, down to the most familiar idiom, the place where it seems to be crawling with secrets which give way to thought. She knows how to make it say what it keeps in reserve, which in the process also makes it come out of its reserve.”3

His example is the phrase: “tous les deux” which means “all two of them” but also “all the two”4 moving beyond the two genders. The sexual difference is not the end, but the beginning thus becoming the possible entrance of deconstruction towards a new hermeneutic, a dark hermeneutic I would like to suggest. As Cixous writes herself: 

“In the beginning the gesture of writing is linked to the experience of disappearance, to the feeling of having lost the key to the world, of having been thrown outside. Of having suddenly acquired the precious sense of the rare, of the mortal. Of having urgently to regain the entrance, the breath, to keep the trace.”5

If the voice had the power to summon, to say “fort!” and “da!” as if they were not only performative speech acts but suddenly true, Cixous would have never written6. She would have laughed instead. A breathtaking practice. But here we are again confronted with the question of speaking and writing, of the binary code of culture as well as the coed of breathing. Inhale, exhale. 

If the magic of “fort!” and “da!” would be real, we would not need any hermeneutical method of understanding what “fort!” and “da!” would mean, neither in the context of the childish game and the psychoanalytical reading of those words as well as in the context of Cixous’ deconstructivism. 

In this sense dark hermeneutics must become female/feminine as if it would be the method of the dark continent femininity/womanhood as Freud feared and explained.7 

Breath and body are connected to the word.8 To appreciate this connection also means to let women have the word, to speak for themselves, to enter the scene of speaking. To give someone the word, does also mean to prompt an actor but also to promise and as Derrida writes:

“But maybe we need to distinguish here between, on the one hand, “donner le mot” which can mean to unveil the password or the closing word, to turn over the secret or the key of a reading, for example of sexual difference and, on the other hand, something else entirely, “se donner le mot” [to give oneself or one another the word]”9

The breath is the moment of giving voice, to induce words into the body on the body within the inhale, and exhale, into the sound of the body which does not mean to become a ventriloquist. Because to connect body voice and breath Cixous insists one has to write.10

But such a writing is written in white ink.11 The complete modern discourse about ink begins with men searching for the perfect recipe of black ink, which will never disappear and will be never destroyed by light or water. It “starts” with Hieronymus Cardanus’ “De rerum varietate” (1557) to Alexius Pedemontanus’ “De secretio libri septem” (1557), Petrus Maria Caneparius’ “De antramentis cujuscunque generis” (1619) the foundation of modern chemistry of ink by Robert Boyle, Otto Tachenius ” Hippocrates Chimicus” (1666), Nicolaus and Loius Lemery to D. J. Waitz “Schlüssel zu dem Cabinet der geheimen Schatzkammer” (1705) leading in Germany to a bunch of “Tintenbücher” for example “Der curiose Schreiber” (1679), “Der wohlerfahrene Schreibkünstler” (1703), “Das aufs neue wohl zubereitete Tinten-Faß” (1733)12.

Finally in the 19th century the concern of state officials culminates in tamper-proof ink. France started the search for such indestructible inks in 1831 until 183713 until a French commission of chemists in 1848 declared that such inks do not work on starched and resin-glued papers. As August Leonhardi discovered the aniline ink the industry switched to the newer ink. This changed as in 1879 Bismarck and the Prussian Government found out that such inks are not as indestructible as iron gall inks. Therefore, they ruled to only use iron gall inks for documentary use. 

There is a crucial difference between what Cixous calls white ink and the male desire for eternal inks. First white ink is perfect for the dark continent in which women write their womanhood if we follow Freud. Secondly, the “male” or main style of writing (as provided by the discourse) is to be read by others for eternity. This is why men need inks which are not damaged by light or water. It is also the ink of modern gouvernmentality which understands every writing as a document. And thirdly it is also the condition of philology: Without permanent inks philology would not be possible, hermeneutics, the truth, understanding would not be possible. With white ink philology cannot work because reading is impossible on white paper. The reader has to come to the dark site to see what is written in white ink. And this is not only everything women have written in between the lines of all the male authors leading the modern discourse of literature. 

White ink is for dark hermeneutics: it is not waterproof, it can be watered down. It is a pharmakon14 but not poisonous as the iron gall ink but as a remedy to the binary code, the principle of two opposites. Instead, white ink opts for the differentiation, the differences15 to give the word as breath. 

No wonder in Jan Potocki’s occult book “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa” a nobleman who lost his beloved wife in childbed and abandoned his son devotes himself to making black ink. The “gipsy” Pandesowna tells the story of his father “Don Felipe d’Avadoro. The father handed his son over to his aunt (the father’s sister), because he feared that his son would remember him of his wife. The father lived therefore a monotonous, hypochondriac life. One part of his life was watching plays in a specific theater. To read the plays he went to the bookstore of the bookseller Moreno, where he met with poets. Then, he became fascinated by making ink for those poets, because they had trouble finding good ink for their writings. Engaged in this new task Avadoro became the best ink maker in the city suppling all the poets and intellectuals. His life could be perfect, but as the story goes the aunt wanted to bring son a father back together. She managed to convince Pater Heronymo who was the priest of Alvador, to meet up with his son.

We all can imagine that this project will not end well. While his son, the narrator, and his aunt are waiting for Avadoro to arrive in his apartment, the young boy wants to make a special entry for his father climbing onto the cabinet in which Avadoro stored all his instruments to make ink. In the exact moment Avadoro enters the room, the son slips and falls into the big bottle of ink. The aunt, in fear of his life, destroys the bottle and the son covered in black ink floats to the feed of his father, who then runs out, falls down the staircase and faints. 

The story shows how making black ink, maternity and paternity is linked together. The father, who do not want to adopt to the situation an become a “mother” escapes into the material world of writing. Not only does he read, and watch plays he also produces the material resource of writing: black ink, which does not dissolve, therefore saves everything what other men write. Instead of writing with white ink, meaning becoming mother to his child, he becomes the source of all writing. This does not mean that the concept of Cixous white ink is equal to being a mother. This would correspond to the binary code of patriarchy. Instead white ink allows us to deconstruct the materiality of being a mother and a father regardless of the gender and as writing as well as providing the resources of writing. 

  1. Cixous 1994 []
  2. Garréta 1986 []
  3. Derrida in Cixous 1994, VII []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid., XXVI []
  6. Ibid., 49 []
  7. Cixous 2013, 42 []
  8. Ibid., 44f. []
  9. Derrida in Cixous 1994, VIII []
  10. Cixous 2013, 45 []
  11. Ibid, 46 []
  12. Martell 1913, 198 []
  13. ibid. []
  14. Derrida 1995 []
  15. Cixous 2013, 43 []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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