Posts Tagged ‘Hélène Cixous’

“Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word ‘silence,’ the one that, aiming at the impossible, stops short before the word ‘impossible’ and writes it as ‘the end.’ ” (Cixous 2049)

“May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.” Attributed to Sappho, written by Cha[i], who then later writes, she is “exchangeable with any other heroine in the story.” (30)… Sybil. Demeter. Persephone. Gertrud. Princess Pari. Queen Min. Yu Guan Soon. Joan of Arc. St. Therese of Lisieux. Laura Claxton’s sister. Clio. Calliope. Urania. Melpomene. Erato. Elitere. Thalia. Terpsichore. Polymnia. Mnemosyne. Hyung Soon Huo. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Daughter. Mother. Unnamable Women.


Dictee is a nonlinear, multilayered, fragmented, cyclical text written in white ink,[ii] an act of giving blood. The life force transfers from one body to another. The self dissolves into, with, because of, the transmutability of selves.


Before we recognize the fluidity of selves and language, there must be a brief paragraph given to the “Word,” the “One.” This Signifier[iii], this One, has been all pervasive, has dominated social structures, linguistic structures, and narrative structures. Everything was (arguably still is) in a hierarchy. The binary structure of opposition. In short, there is a cage match.


In the red corner: Man! With his… speech, immediacy, presence, light, truth, logos, oneness, his God and his penis.




In the blue corner: Woman! With her… deferral, difference, absence, darkness, lack, lawlessness, multiplicity, her heterogeneity, and her vagina, that terror.


But. The blue corner never wins.[iv] She’s been doomed, damned, cunt-shunted. So she’s kept quiet, silent, living in veils and shadows, wrapping herself in shawls and enigmas. This is where Cixous asks women to break through, start an aphonic revolt, leave not a single space untouched within language that is man’s alone. She wants us to “dislocate this annihilating within….explode it…impregnate it!” (Cixous 2049) Cha does exactly this.[v]


She writes in a borrowed tongue, in her allotted English language, and several others, but asks the reader to translate (part of) the text into French. This is not written solely for a bilingual audience; she wants the reader to experience the “in between.” Her side-by-side prose of English and French[vi] requires something to be lost in the (impossibly) direct translation. French to English, and vice versa, will never be, it cannot be exact. Her words, no matter the language, are then veiled as well, exposed as being cloaked in mystery, proving that that the invisible is complicated, but not unexplorable.


Silence, Mnemosyne[vii], memories, passivity, waiting, they’re all part of the invisible. Cha describes the pain of waiting inside a pause, waiting inside herself, as unbearable. “The wait from pain to say,” (4) she says, the mute diseuse, who secretly waits within their structure, multiplying, wrapping every word in tinfoil or black lace. She lives inside the void, inside the terrifying in-between structure, the space where the she makes her voice, gets the strength to speak. Just to speak.

From: ‘Dictee’ Takes the Stage. Author: Julie Ha

This is not a matter of castration, of control, of winning, but rather the point is to “dash through and to fly.”[viii] (Cixous 2050) Woman’s subversiveness is her own anonymity. Cixous claims women are givers, they can merge without annihilating themselves, flow from one woman to the next. “Her language does not contain, it carries.” (Cixous 2052) Words blend from one word to the next. Women, like words, are alive because they transform. They are always becoming.


“The woman arriving over and over again does not stand still; she’s everywhere, she exchanges.” (Cixous 2056) In other words, she is a metamorphosing collage of multiple voices. Cha’s (re)writing history, embodying the Muses, giving them voices, freeing them from their original patriarchal shackles, and this includes not making them speak only through men, in their male language, with their phallologocentric stories of beginnings, middles, and ends, their epic poems.


All Cha’s figures, all her narratives, begin in the middle; they always relate to another story: the Mother.


Dictee is not a traditional epic poem. It is not about man’s rise to glory, the glory of the gods, or a best or first of anything.[ix] Helene P. Foley argues “that the female version of the heroic quest is defined by issues relating to marriage and fertility and ends with a cyclical reunion and separation that also mitigates death.”[x] Dictee’s Muses no longer conceal their sorrow. They illustrate that there is something inherently traumatic in the female position.


Cha speaks of a series of concentric circles, which can be translated to a series of returns and departures, a code of trauma, meaning both the traumatic event is cyclical, perpetually returning to haunt the survivor contemplating the impossibility of their own death, and also that one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another. Trauma has a mute repetition of suffering,[xi] a festering silence, a wound. “Trauma seems to be much more than a pathology, or the simple illness of a wounded psyche: it is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains to be unknown in our very actions and our language.” (Caruth 4)


The wound is another, an Other, a foreign object inside the body[xii], a divided self. “It festers inside. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must void.” (3) The Koreans, and women, do not own their imagery. They must dictate what is spoken to them using the oppressor’s language. They swallow the wound. It weeps.


Dictee is the wound crying out. And because it’s not fully understood, because it’s related to the suppression, to a mini-death, the speech comes out broken, in fragment – without the attempt at sewing them together. To create links is to manipulate; to do as the oppressors do. According to écriture feminine,this is a masculine trait of dominance, and consumption.[xiii] The one creating the links is the one that controls the image-repertoire. Cha, like Cixous, is requesting a new mode of reading, a new mode of listening, not a new language.


This is further explored with Cha’s use of curtailed images of suppressed history. Anne Anlin Cheng suggests that “redeeming these images has frequently only served to re-violate them.” (Cheng 121) The repressed no longer own the images of themselves. These images become images of the action, belonging to the oppressors. Cheng follows with both the urgency and the impossibility of rerecording history, echoing the mindset of Caruth: History arises within the impossibility of understanding.


Cha is (re)presenting the trauma of an entire nation and the female gender. Both language and image are insufficient to accurately describing the horror, the subjugation, the effacement. “Unfathomable the words, the terminology: enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, destruction.” (32) These words are the opposite of Cha’s epitaph, they do not recognize the irony of their own stability as words. The act of seeing these images reappropriated into Japanese history, or hearing the empty signifier, erases the reality of any event. Cha is preventing that from happening again; she’s preventing the reoccurrence of removal by not attempting to explain, to master. The image, like trauma, cannot be mastered. This is an embrace of the cyclical quality of trauma, its arrivals and departures, the series of concentric circles.


Through her analysis of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Cathy Caruth discusses a similar situation about both Korea’s oppressors. “The knowledge of Hiroshima, for the French, understood not as the incomprehensible occurrence of the nuclear bombing of the Japanese but as the knowledge they call ‘the end,’ effaces the event of a Japanese past and inscribes it, as a referent, into the narrative of French History.” (Caruth 29) Cha understands that this is a nationwide, corrosive occurrence. The postmodern subject has a difficult time grounding herself within the constructs of the image and the reappropriations of words, languages, and texts. The abstract enemy, the relationship between self and enemy, becomes larger because of what’s at stake: total consumption. In the language of binary opposition, the enemy is all that the self is not, and therefore, runs, and fears the constant risk of its own “ontological security.”[xiv]


The self recognizes itself as a being in the world, inextricably dependent on that world, and not the other way around.[xv] People exist as beings defined by Others who carry models of us in their heads, just as we carry models of them in our heads. Laing explains that a schizophrenic turns herself into a “thing”[xvi] to reduce herself from being in the world. When one’s identity is constantly being threatened, and because the being relates to the world through her body, she disembodies herself to transcend the world and be safe.


If Dictee’s subject(s): Woman qua silence, qua subservient, Other, separated from Mother, from Motherland, experiences a double separation, double subservience, then what is lost turns into loss. The reader is asked to empathize, particularly during Calliope’s segment where the text is written in second person, but Cha refuses to let the reader get grounded in a particular protagonist, a particular subject. Cha seeks to break down the representation of trauma as liminality. Both Dictee and trauma deny any sort of mapping within the ontological framework; R.D. Laing would consider this kind of division schizophrenic.


I would argue this “divided self” represents yesterday’s woman,[xvii] the woman that turns herself into an object, that defines her sexuality only through the male gaze, through the masochistic desire to be looked at; this is the woman that completely identifies with the androcentric stagnation of masculine “Truth.”


The Freudian system of sexuality is based on looking because it privileges the penis,[xviii] thus privileging the visible. This masochism is forced upon the woman, meaning pleasure does not reside in her, but refers back on male sexuality.


Luce Irigaray reminds us that the very nature of woman’s self, her sexuality, is auto-erotic, in that the woman is constantly touching herself[xix] since her vagina is composed of two embracing lips. She says that with herself, woman is already two, and not divisible into one, and she translates this feminine auto-eroticism into feminine discourse or writing. “This ‘style’ does not privilege sight; instead it takes each figure back to its source, which is among other things tactile. It comes back into touch with itself in that origin without ever constituting in it, constituting itself in it, as some sort of unity… It is always fluid, without neglecting the characteristics of fluids that are difficult to idealize: those rubbing between two infinitely near neighbors that create a dynamics.” (Irigaray 79)


According to Irigaray, the feminine “style” of writing is filled with ebb and flow, multiple beginnings, and multiple paths. And this is what Cha emphasizes with the nonlinear narrative of her female heroines, all of which transcend the patriarchy, all of which ebb and flow into one another.[xx] This nonlinear approach interferes with historical practice, which is most ironically portrayed by Clio. Not only does Cha connect historical events with fragments of Guan Soon’s biography, she also literally rewrites history in order to voice a history from a woman’s perspective.[xxi]


Every character loops around and connects to every other female character through the omnipresent trope of the mother-daughter relationship. And she mythologizes her “real life characters” in order to make the personal public, thus furthering the subversion of the epic poem.


Each woman is connected through various mothers as well as their refusals to yield to the oppressive patriarchal forces of imperialism. The Elysian Fields, to which Cha alludes to, are not just a place of heavenly female experience, but a place of real heartache as well. Cha promotes the experience of woman by trickling one woman into the next in such a way as to disrupt all linear assumptions by deleting the bridges history deems necessary to create.


The nonlinear is deeply connected with the unnamable in that there is no determinable beginning or end, and without the abrupt packages the masculine “style” creates, all “Truth,” in its phallologocentric forms, is unraveled and taken away from its inherent morbidity. Men have thought that the only two unrepresentable things are death and the female sex,[xxii] but Cha shows that the female sex is not unrepresentable, it was just unrepresentable within the oppressive confines of the masculine system of referents. But now the ironclad chain linking the signifier and signified is broken.


Again, this breaking is not a violent castration, but a delicate process of veiling and unveiling. As a woman’s body may become “full” with child, language, words become full with double meanings. The Freudian binary system of sexuality explodes with this addition of multiplicity. And by the very definition of multiplicity the penis is not excluded, just no longer privileged. Cha is refusing to call herself, which at this point includes all women, a lack, a nothing: “transform this nothingness into fire.” (111) She wants love to lower itself to nothingness, to the realm of the woman, for a true and total union. Echoing the words: “I do desire the other for the other, whole and entire, male or female; because living means that everything lives, and wanting it to be alive.” (Cixous 2054)


And in this transition, death cannot, and will not be privileged over life. A mother lifts her child up to the window. The daughter witnesses the pulleys, the machine, the language of her mother’s time; she wants to see, to become a part of it: “Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to the sky.” (179) Break the stillness. Break the silence. Perpetual motion. Perpetually becoming. Peal away the layers. Appeler: to name. A peal. A name. Peal a name back, reveal more than one, render the thing, the itness of it, and all that entails, indescribable, unnamable.


DICTEE. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. University of California Press. 2001.

UNCLAIMED EXPERIENCE; TRAUMA, NARRATIVE, AND HISTORY. Cathy Caruth. The John Hopkins University Press. 1996.


THE SEX WHICH IS NOT ONE. Luce Irigaray. Cornell University Press. 1985.

THE DIVIDED SELF. R.D. Laing. Pelican Books. 1965.



End Notes

1 “One of the first female writers who put women into the text, world, and history was Sappho… Cha [also] manifests her feminist position by identifying with Sappho: she writes the epigraph herself and attributes it to the Greek poet.” (Lee 78)

[ii] Not an obscure, angry, flat, and unreadable feminist text.

[iii] Penis.

[iv] In reality, given the Master/Slave dialectic, neither ever wins.

[v] “She begins the search the words of equivalence to that of her feeling. Or the absence of it. Synonym, simile, metaphor, byword, byname, ghostword, phantomnation. In documenting the map of her journey.” (140) The double-meanings, the nonwords, the semantics game.

[vi] Dare I say two lips?

[vii] In the Theogony, Mnemosyne disappears after giving birth to the nine muses.

[viii] Voler: to fly and to steal. The double meaning was originally implied.

[ix] M.M. Bakhtin: “The world of the epic is… a world of bests and firsts.” (Lee 87)

[x] As explained by Kun Jong Lee on pg. 92.

[xi] In contrast to the language of pain: the scream, cavewoman utterances.

[xii] A Migraine.

[xiii] Whoever controls the present controls the past…

[xiv] Phrase coined by Dr. R.D. Laing describing people that feel persecuted by reality itself.

[xv] Unless you’re a solipsist.

[xvi] He gives various examples from patients, such as a piece of wood floating in a pond.

[xvii] Cixous’s woman of yesterday: the woman silently dwelling.

[xviii] Hence, penis envy.

[xix] As Dictee illustrates in Erato’s Love Poetry section.

[xx] All of which transcend the limitations of their bodily identities.

[xxi] Guan Soon did not organize the March 1st riots in Seoul, but in her hometown Aunae, nor were the March 1st riots started after the assassination of Queen Min, who was murdered 24 years earlier. Cha specifically manipulates these details because she truly “regards the Queen as the symbol of Korea colonized by Japan and situates her at the origin Korea’s nationalist struggle against Japanese colonialism.” (Lee 87) And Guan Soon was popularly called the Joan of Arc of Korea; Cha wanted to “situate Guan Soon at the origin of the March First Movement, to portray the ‘woman soldier’ as an active agent of history; and to recenter the feminine voice from the margins of Korean nationalism.” (Lee 87)

[xxii] Which to men, Cixous points out, is equal to death.

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I have always played with God. For me, the signifier Dieu, as I have always said, is the synonym of what goes beyond us, of our own projection toward the future, toward infinity.

What I must say also is that clearly, like all writers who invoke Dieu the word and the word Dieu in their texts, I am religiously atheistic, but literarily deistic, that’s it. Ultimately I think that no one can write without the aid of God, but what is it, God? without the aid of writing, God-as-Writing.

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It rings. And rings. We can now silence it, but before, we couldn’t. We could only take it off the hook. Ignore that beepbeepbeepbeepbeep. But still, most of us don’t. Most of us want the telephone to ring. We assume it will ring, and when it does, we run to answer it, like Pavlovians. Ring. Hello? You there. Hello?

The mind to body connection is astounding. Ring. Phone in hand. Hello?

It’s instinctual. Like pulling your hand off of a lit stove. Hello? Talk to me.

Women wait by the telephone. (Though now, women wait for the telephone, as they are mobile, wireless devices, no longer stuck inside the home.) Everyone has waited by for the telephone. I’ve waited by for the telephone. Hoping he would call. He, the proverbial he. Hoping he would end my suffering and call. Sometimes he didn’t. Often times he didn’t.

But then sometimes, he did. “I’m sorry,” He mostly said. “I was busy.”

Busy, the predominant emotional state in men.

The words go through a machine then come out differently. They sound differently. The inflections are all wrong. The inflections are faceless. Expressionless. Without eyes.

The words are interpreted. The machine spits out what he said and I reel it in and translate it. He was busy evokes a tree of translations. He was writing. He was out with someone else. He was doing something, anything, other than thinking about me.

This is not a post wherein I discuss past relationships’ failures. This is dissection of the telephone.

Or, as Cixous calls it, the Tele-Vaccination.

Because his voice can be an injection. It can calm the storm. Weather the war within. It penetrates our ears.

The telephone is an appendage that abates loneliness. Ring. Hello? I’m here.

The telephone used to be my savior. In college I used to get nightmares. Horrible nightmares where my friends, my family, me were being brutally murdered for sport. I began reading Sartre’s Imaginary. He said that one cannot reflect in dreams, that when one starts asking questions regarding a dream’s authenticity as dream then one could effectively control their dreams. That night, I dreamt that the outdoor Pedestrian Mall was carpeted. I was walking along the ordinarily cobbled street but feeling the scratchy, clean fibers underneath my bare feet when I thought, The Ped Mall wasn’t always carpeted, was it?

No, it most certainly was not. My dreaming self took out her cell phone. She pressed some buttons and called a lover whom she wished to see, whom I, the dreamer, had wished to see. My absent lover. The lover that didn’t always call. My lover that existed through the telephone.

This became a repeated gesture throughout my dreams during this period in my life.

If a threatening man appeared in my dreams I would take out my cell phone, dial him, or some number, some friend, and the contact would see me through to a different scene. The phone eased my suffering. Just as it did when my lover called.

The phone would ring. His number would appear, and that number, without fail, was never Hello? it was always Tonight. Later. You will get to see me tonight. His number, his ring, eased my longing. His ring never wanted to talk. It wanted to penetrate.

Cixous asks, why is there no painting of a woman waiting by the telephone?

A woman waiting to be translated, to be understood. Waiting to be heard without being seen.

Both of these, she knows, are impossible. To be heard is to trigger memory. He may be hearing me, unable to see me, but he is thinking about me, imagining my face, my body language as he deciphers my emotions, decodes blindly, with memory, with translation. To be translated is not to be understood.

“Language calls out for its translation precisely because it is untranslatable.”

Lily Robert-Foley wrote that.

And, what about the game Telephone?

The first person is the speaker, the last the listener, and everyone in between represents the machine, the device that words must travel through. This is how we end up with “purple monkey dishwasher” tacked onto the end of the sentence. The device is not pure. The machine is dirty, it crackles, words mutate, fall through its static.

Lily and I are writing a book on the Telephone. Or rather, it’s called Telephone. She writes. I translate. She translates. I write. We began this project because she’s far, too far for the telephone to be affordable. So we write, letters, but with a keen awareness of the Telephone-Other that is not there but would be if we were on the telephone.

I write:

I have read, that Derrida has said, that, “a ‘good’ translation must always commit abuses.” It gives permission to the text to narrowly escape banality by asserting itself as a translation.

A translation is both aggressive and demure.

A translation must continue “seeking the unthought or unthinkable in the unsaid or unsayable.”

I look at your text, your words, and I read them aloud. To illuminate, and to disappear: used as both verb and noun. One syllable crashes into another, leaving the former a memory. A memory that is never remembered accurately, like a feeling.

A feeling that’s locked in a box. Trapped. From head to paper through pen. Trapped again. Inside a box. Inside a dresser sometimes, like the time I found that pack of cigarettes you meant to throw out (one of my trauma boxes, you could say, nestled within my father’s trauma box, as he cannot bear the sight of Lucky Strikes), next to your trauma boxes. One word written on each cubic side. A terrible memory of yours locked inside.

She writes:

Cixous says we repeat a lot on the phone, don’t we, we repeat what we said because we are afraid that the other hasn’t heard what we said or we repeat what we think the other said because we are afraid we did not hear what the other said, the definition of the telephone being that it rings and we respond right away and this is what happens to language in translation as it passes from one language to another for instance language in French has two words, langage, which is the structures of language, the way the unities of language, whatever they may be maybe are put together and in what order and with what value, and langue which is the institution of language, those who speak and protect it, the library and the publishing houses, the debates in the government, not just something I wrote to you, but as we say sometimes, a langue is a language with an Army and a Navy, which is why the Swiss have no langue and that chasm of homophonies, a word or an idiom’s history of iteration, its memory and its interpersonal relationships must be demolished and built up again in a new language, and that’s why Derrida says that translation is impossible, but that it is also necessary…

The Telephone is a trauma box of mine. The pain is stored inside of its receiver. The fear that the other person is not hearing me right. That their translation of me is inaccurate. That I translated inaccurately.

But also, that they are not there, not listening, playing video games, setting the phone down. Walking away as I speak.

I have anxiety about the facelessness, the earlessness of the telephone. That my presence is unwanted, an interruption, an intrusion.

This explains the excitement for the ringing phone, for the gentleman caller.

Ring. Hello? I want to talk to you.

The telephone is a reward for good behavior.

Its removal is a punishment.

I was always grounded from the telephone.

Late at night I would sneak calls. Sometimes I would set up a meeting time, a rendezvous minute, where I would call a 1-800 number and wait for the other to call, for call-waiting, so my parents wouldn’t know I was on the phone.

This is when the telephone became sacred. Because of this, because of my absent lover, I adopted surreptitious telephone habits. The telephone became a secret. The telephone became a symbol, a portal to an affair. The gentleman caller is a voice without a face. He could be anyone to anyone else, anyone other than me. He is a secret. His phone call is also a secret.

Ring. Hello? Shhh, they’ll hear you.

But they can’t hear. Only the one with telephone can hear. Ear pressed against the device she hears words only spoken for her.

These words can bring forth demands. They can be exhausting, annoying.

Ring. Hello? Do this. Ring. Hello? Explain yourself. Ring. Hello? Give me your time.

Or then, the fantasy, the desire to be loved, to be missed, to be heard.

Ring. Hello? I love you. I love you too.

But what if these last two quarrel. What happens when they’re at odds?

Ring. Hello? I love you, she says. Give me your time, he hears. No, he says, and she falls, rejected, sad. He’s confused, that’s not what he meant. He meant he was busy. She dissects “busy,” as she’s wont to do. Still paranoid, still assuming refusal, dismissal. He becomes angry. A cycle. A series of misunderstandings. Miscommunications. Meaning lost inside the machine.

(Ring. Hello? Come to me.)

(To quote Beyoncé, “I should’ve left my phone at home cuz this is a disaster.”)

(Ring. Hello? I’m sorry.)

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As seen circulating around the blogosphere, Ten Most Influential Books. In no hierarchic order. These are the books I hold nearest and dearest. These are the books that shaped me as a writer, and as a person.

1. Henry and June by Anaïs Nin.

Ms. Nin came to me at a liminal time when I was deciding whether or not I would write. Up until this point I had only written journals, diaries, or really terrible, sincere poetry. Writing was something secretive, something I did in shame. Ms. Nin taught me that the subjective experience is beautiful, universal, important. She unapologetically writes like a woman, with such abundance and honesty. She is a creator, a mother, a goddess. Her insights on the terrible joys of her own disintegration inspired me for decades to record and observe everything that mattered to me.

I want to be a strong poet, as strong as Henry and John are in their realism. I want to combat them, to invade and annihilate them. What baffles me about Henry and what attracts me are the flashes of insight, and the flashes of dreams. Fugitive. And the depths. Rub off the German realist, the man who “stands for shit,” as Wambly Bald says to him, and you get a lusty imagist. At moments he can say the most delicate or profound things. But his softness is dangerous, because when he writes he does not write with love, he writes to caricature, against something. Anger incites him. I am always for something. Anger poisons me. I love, I love, I love.

2. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a canonical expression, a postmodern acceleration of the great modernist thematics of alienation, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation. “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street,” the first line reads, says, because one does get the sense that Kate is speaking to you, that she needs you. She is the last person ­­­– the only living being – on earth. There are no other Beings off of whom Kate can bounce her identity anymore. She can no longer anticipate the kind of unpredictable future that an Other could bring. She is stuck in the present, only able to refer to the past (particularly, the literary past). She is the soul keeper of all of humanity, responsible for the cultural sphere of memory, which includes art and history, subjects which once belonged to everyone. She types up all that she can remember, as it relates to her conscious thoughts. Trying to relate all of this, every fact she can remember, Kate types, to herself, to no one, for herself, for humanity, one fragment at a time, with such precision that she begins to lose the thread. Wittgenstein’s Mistress taught me about allegory, about the boundaries of the novel, and about the slippery nature of language. This is the best representation, I can think of, of the human mind, how it remembers and how it communicates.

Wittgenstein was never married, by the way. Well, or never had a mistress either, having been a homosexual.

Although in the meantime when I just said in the meantime I truly did mean in the meantime.

It now being almost an entire week since I additionally said I would doubtless think of my cat’s name in a day or two.

3. The Melancholy of Anatomy by Shelley Jackson.

Melancholy of Anatomy is a collection of short stories that turn the body inside-out. Each organ or bodily abjection she depicts becomes conscious, dangerous, symbolic of our bodies as a mélange, as fragmented, as fragile. She creates a fantasy world where giant ovum suddenly appear outside, sperm fly through the air like insects, and menstrual blood gushes through pipes. When I was assigned this back in college, I had yet come across a wedding of Écriture feminine and fantasy, most of the contemporary feminine writing I had seen was essay about writing, I couldn’t recall any fiction. In Melancholy of Anatomy, every line delivers a new idea, playing off of the last, enriching, filling her stories to the brim with equally gorgeous and uncomfortable squishy goodness. Her prose is tense, both academic and playful, and though the rest of the class complained she was pretentious, I couldn’t have fallen more in love with Jackson’s rich text, her courageous style and subject matter, and her endlessly sharp mind. Later, when I studied under her, I was just as in awe.

There are hearts bigger than planets: black hearts that absorb all light, hope, and dust particles, that eat comets and space probes.

4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return, that maybe, possibly, every moment in our agonizingly detailed life will be repeated again and again in the exact same manner forever. Sometimes, that thought is too much, too heavy. But then again, if we do only live once, then it may as well never happen. This was my first flirtation with nihilism, with death and meaninglessness, all concepts that seem incredibly grim, but I also found them inspiring. I wanted to live my life like an art project. For years I told people that this was my favorite book, I thought it made the world a better place simply by existing. I related to every character: Tomas and his omnipotence, his hubris; Tereza and her physical insecurity, her ontological insecurity; Franz and his passion, his quixotries; but mostly, I identified with Sabina, because I used to consider myself a mistress, and an artist. She was everything I wanted to be: unencumbered, powerful, sincere, authentic. It was such a pleasure to pretend that for the longest time she was my primary role model.

When they looked at each other in the mirror that time, all she saw for the first few seconds was a comic situation. But suddenly the comic became veiled by excitement: the bowler no longer signified a joke; it signified violence: violence against Sabina, against her dignity as a woman. She saw her bare legs and thins panties with her pubic triangle showing through. The lingerie enhanced the charm of her femininity, while the hard masculine hat denied it, violated and ridiculed it. The fact that Tomas stood beside her fully dressed meant that the essence of what they both saw was far from good clean fun (if it had been fun he was after, he, too, would have had to strip and don a bowler hat); it was humiliation. But instead of spurning it, she proudly, provocatively played it for all it was worth, as if submitting of her own will to public rape; and suddenly, unable to wait any longer, she pulled Tomas down to the floor. The bowler hat rolled under the table, and they began thrashing about on the rug at the foot of the mirror.

5. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.

It was a toss up for me, deciding between Nightwood and Ryder, but in the end I came down on Nightwood. It’s perfect. The kind of perfect that’s almost discouraging. Christopher Hitchens says this about Nabokov. Djuna Barnes says this about Joyce. I’m saying this about her. She takes the high modernist style and appropriates it into her own. Jeanette Winterson writes that “reading [Nightwood] is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass.” Queer and blasphemous. Gothic and lyrical. Rich and dazzling. Plotless and wise. Barnes’ prose renders me speechless. She was unapologetically opinionated, boner-shrinkingly powerful, and always in a tremendous amount of pain. Nightwood is essentially a roman à clef about Barnes’ devastating relationship with Thelma Wood, who is only thinly disguised as Robin Vote.

Sleeping in a bed, surrounded by plants and exotic flowers, heavy and disheveled, we first meet Robin, who is described with such beauty, such longing, such ache. This woman can love.

The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seen as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. Above her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water–as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deterioration–the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds–meet of child and desperado.

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room (in the apprehension of which the walls have made their escape), thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseen dompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of wood-winds render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness.

Nora, my protagonist in A Suburb of Monogamy, is an homage to Ms. Barnes.

6. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Dictee is a nonlinear, multilayered, fragmented, cyclical text written in white ink. Like the painful, beautiful act of giving blood, the novel’s life force transfers from one body to another. One heroine to another. Always becoming. The self dissolves into, with, because of, the transmutability of selves. Dictee opened up new worlds of structure for me. It redefined the novel, yet again, but in ways beyond Markson, beyond House of Leaves, beyond language. Dictee is a work of art, an experience. Everything Hélène Cixous had ever taught me I was now seeing in Dictee. Cha, as a displaced Korean woman, writes in a borrowed tongue, mainly in her allotted English language, but also several others, because she has no language of her own, and because she wants her readers to experience the “in between.” Something is always lost in even the most direct (impossible!) translation, even in the translation of thought to language. Cha effectively illustrates that all women’s words are veiled, exposed as being cloaked in mystery, but still, it’s better to speak, even under a veil.

Cixous asks women to break through Phallogocentrism; start an aphonic revolt; leave not a single space untouched within language that is man’s alone. She wants us to “dislocate this annihilating within….explode it…impregnate it!” Cha does exactly this. Each one of her images, her allegories, all begat another, then another; her words open up like flowers, each carrying a precious seedling, and ready, at any moment, to spread their love.

Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to the sky.

7. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

I finished each of these three books the same way: on the sixteenth hour, pacing back and forth across my living room floor, laughing, gasping, crying, keeping myself awake, just to finish, because I couldn’t stop, because I didn’t want them to end.

Both Pullman and his novels are renowned atheists. He took the questions of God, consciousness, and the beginning of life, and he answered them. As a child, I was raised Catholic. Catholic school and everything. At a young age I began to question my faith. Then I began to fear death, which I began to think of as non-existence, pure blackness, meaninglessness. And this terrified me. Heaven wasn’t reassuring because I didn’t believe in heaven. I could’ve used His Dark Materials to help answer some of those torments. He masterfully illustrates that for some, simply returning to the earth is preferable to what could quite possible turn out to be a celestial North Korea. Pullman’s God character is not God but the first being to become conscious of himself. A tyrannical regime that splits children from their souls has been erected in his honor, and it’s up to a little girl, her daemon (which is an animal manifestation of her soul or psyche), and some friends to help save all the creatures in all the worlds that are conscious of themselves. This takes guts. His Dark Materials is a magical, thoughtful, and perspicacious book, and what I really like, is that Pullman shows that morality does not solely lie within the church, that it is an inherent quality to intelligence and love.

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognized the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on:

Note: If you’re going to buy His Dark Materials make sure you get a British edition as all American presses censored The Amber Spyglass. Above is the censored paragraph.

8. Introduction to Phenomenology by Dermot Moran.

Opening this book for the first time meant discovering Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Gadamer, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida within five minutes. It was almost too much. I remember shutting the book, smoking a bowl, then beginning again. In a reductive nutshell, Phenomenology is the study of things in their manner of appearing to consciousness. The mode of givenness is best approached when assumptions about the world are put out of mind, bracketed off. This is a study that gets back to the building blocks of existence. One must now think of objects as existing exactly in the manner in which they are given in the view from nowhere. Meaning, all objects are encountered perspectivally and “inside” each and all objects there are an infinite number of perspectives. For instance, my cat and I see a rubberband very differently, as does my boyfriend, and my mother. Though we all have an idea of rubberbandness, we each have memories of specific rubberbands we’ve encountered that go into play each time we look at a new rubberband, or remember a rubberband. This study is also put to other beings, Others, as well as the self. Phenomenology is a kind of science; it must be attentive to describing the mode of being as accurately as it can, while at the same time aware that it can only know its own subjective experience. Husserl sought pure description, which led to Heidegger’s historicity and temporality, which then of course led to Derrida’s Deconstruction, which, for all intensive purposes collapsed phenomenology as a method. Derrida attacked the assumption of the possibility of the “full presence” of any meaning in an intentional act, which then emphasized the displacement of meaning, the constant deferring of meaning, therefore eliminating any possibility of pure meaning.

Each and every idea in this book was mind-blowing for me and led to such an exploration of so many concepts. I initially wanted to include Sartre’s The Imaginary on this list, then I thought I needed Derrida, and I couldn’t decide on any specific text, but really, I should pay homage to the very book–even though it’s an introduction–that started it all. The Introduction to Phenomenology made me a better thinker and a better writer and I know of no other academic book that has had such a profound impact on me.

It is frequently argued that the main contribution of phenomenology has been the manner in which it has steadfastly protected the subjective view of experience as a necessary part of any full understanding of the nature of knowledge.

9. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

This is the only book I’m including from my childhood. Though SO MANY books shaped me and inspired me, Alice never stopped amazing me. I loved that the protagonist is a little girl, and that she’s on a genderless journey, I laughed at how rude everyone is; then later I loved the drug references, then analyzing the Freudian implications of Carroll keeping Alice locked outside of the garden, her sexuality, so at least textually, he could keep her as a little girl forever. Then, I became obsessed with the linguistic games–how mathematical he made language–then how many of the metaphors and scenes relate to Carroll’s migraines, a disease both he and I share. However, the more I love this book the more I lament how often it’s been represented in the lesser medium of film. To reproduce Alice is almost a sign of being washed up. *Ahem*Tim Burton*Ahem* Alice is a book that’s meant to be read. Its riddles are meant to confuse a child, and the implications of those riddles are meant to confuse an adult. Though the latter’s confusion is to be much more pernicious and therefore much more liberating. All this, all the scholarly supplemental reading, and all the flights of fantasy I took on its behalf are why Alice must make the list.

Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am–and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare.


To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember’d.

Hélène Cixous also deserves an honorary mention. The mother of Écriture feminine, a more emboldened strain of feminism, Cixous has encouraged women to inscribe their bodies, and their difference, into language and text. Many have shown me the importance of writing, but she has shown me the importance of writing as a woman, a feminist, and an othered member of society. She is in a different category, on a different plane of existence. Everything I have read of hers has changed my writing, has inspirited and incentivized me. She is my most beloved artist.

Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.

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I went to MoMa last Thursday. To see the Tim Burton exhibit. I did not see The Pin Cushion Queen. I missed it. Tim Burton has meant a lot to me. This painting, has meant a lot to me. I spent hours, at the MoMa, looking, walking, daydreaming, falling into Tim Burton’s proverbial arms, and yet, somehow, I missed The Pin Cushion Queen.

Life isn’t easy
for the Pin Cushion Queen.
When she sits on her throne
pins push through her spleen.

Immediately, upon walking into the gallery, one enters the mouth of a black and white striped monster, with his pointy teeth and wiry hair, I shrunk to a child, felt phenomenological bliss. A carousel of creatures and monsters all unseen yet seen, completely familiar, spun under black lights to eery melodic tunes.

Submerged, in Burton’s paintings, his drawings, his characters, re-occurring nightmares, made friendly, made corporate, I felt sorry for him. It is east to forget that Tim Burton is an artist. It is easy to forget he has created a world, that this world is his, not Warner Brothers.

Tim Burton is an artist. His toothy monsters, his homage to Edward Gorey, are all his.

Moving in chronological order, reading about all the unrealized projects, the baby steps he took at fifteen, the suburban sprawl that he was compelled to rise above, seeing his vision, his world laid before me, I knew I was standing before a genius, but more importantly, I knew I standing before someone troubled, someone sad, so full of ennui that he couldn’t speak about it with words. He had to use narratives.

Then I came to Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas.

She was about a foot tall, but lying down, her hands and feet bound by black rope. I couldn’t leave her. I stood there, behind the glass, for ten minutes, looking, staring. Mesmerized. Lost in the kind of peculiar egocentric moment that only art can create.

Sally is a woman, created by man, by a man, the only in this world, that can create life. We are told by him that she is young, too young to be leaving his house unattended, too young for excitement.

But she is ready. She was always ready. But she is under patriarchal rule. Both servant and child to a mad scientist, to this God, to her father.

She is comprised of fragments, patches, stitched together with thread and needle as if she were a doll, as if she were a quilt. She feels no pain when she leaps from a window, when her body splits into pieces, when her limbs detach, when she reattaches them.

Sally is a patchwork girl. She is an embodiment of woman’s language patterns. She is multiple, sewn together to compose a whole. She is different from man.

Just as Luce Irigary says, a woman’s vagina, her two lips are continually embracing,  so does woman retouch herself in conversation. “One must listen to her differently in order to hear an ‘other meaning’ which is constantly in the process of weaving itself, at the same time ceaselessly embracing words and yet casting them off to avoid becoming fixed, immobilized.”

(I sometimes wonder if Sally’s true form is disembodied, if the scientist only forged her together to control her. If she would prefer an unbound body.)

Woman’s language moves, it changes, it multi-tasks, juggling seven, eight, nine topics at once.

Sometimes when women write, their words, their ideas jump around, seem too choppy, yet they flow perfectly. Like rivers slipping into the sea.

I like to think of feminine writing like a quilt. Like Sally.

And, here, at the MoMa, seeing Sally bound and gagged, made me sad.

Sally, woman, was silenced, once more.

This is why Cixous writes:

Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse, including the one that laughs at the very idea of pronouncing the word ‘silence,’ the one that, aiming at the impossible, stops short before the word ‘impossible’ and writes it as ‘the end.’

Years ago, I wrote a collection of short stories about my migraines, translating my headaches, my indescribable pain, into narratives, hoping to shorten the chasm between self and other, that gap between pain and language. I gave the book the pithy title of Migraines, and I dedicated it to my mother, who, twenty seven years ago, lovingly passed down the disease.

The book, for all intensive purposes, is still being edited. Mainly because the project has been placed on hold, for my novel, A Suburb of Monogamy, which will be done soon. So very, very soon. Migraines was my first book, which, if anyone were to read it in its original form, would grasp that, immediately. Some of the stories have been edited and are available at Ampersand Review, Volume IV. However, and I am rambling (and self-promoting, while I’m at it), the book’s original cover (mine, not Ampersand’s) was simply an unauthorized copy of Tim Burton’s The Pin Cushion Queen.

This piece has been my Myspace photo and my computer’s desktop, and is now embodied in statue form on my shelf, and I fucking missed seeing it in the flesh in New York while on a brief and nightmarish vacation to my old city.

This is unacceptable.

However, it is poetic (justice, possibly, as I did use his work to represent my own, even if only six people had seen the book).

A work of art, discovered, cherished, and loved for something grotesque, found through a Google search, transcended its author, transcended its intended meaning, was reappropriated, for me, personally. As if this piece spoke to me, and only me. The power, the magnitude of the longing I would’ve felt might have slewed me. Might have melted me, into a puddle, right there, in the MoMa. Surely, because it’s New York, no one would have noticed, and my rage, for the sublimity, for the city, might have broken this camel’s back.

I possess, I have in my possession, in my heart, the rage of Achilles.

This image, this painting, had to be shunned from my eyes.

Because there was too many people around.

Like the impossibility of communing with The Mona Lisa. There are too many assholes that think their camera phone would capture a better image than the gift shop, than the internet, than everyone, the collective consciousness’ brain.

Last night, my family and I went to see Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. Which was powerful, bipolar, everything you’d expect from a man that was afraid to speak. The Chicago Orchestra Hall was an experience in and of itself. The balcony tilted. Gave us all vertigo. I could barely cross my legs, and was reminded of an airplane.

All of us, canned fish, listening, opening candy wrappers, scratching their pants, their partner’s pants, and coughing. The infernal coughing!!

But this is me, becoming an agoraphobe, exposing my hermetic veins, how blue and calligraphic they are under the heat of the bedside lamp.

This is me, a girl with pins in her head, afraid of the sounds of Shostakovich, afraid of the world’s pulse, of missing out as I walk right by something so important to me that I may possibly never have the chance to see again.

The Pin Cushion Queen remains, as does Migraines, as do migraines, unseen.

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In The Laugh of the Medusa, Hélène Cixous speaks of female oppression from the phallogocentric structures inherent in language, in all cultural discourse, all signs, in all texts. Women are silenced, backed into a corner, told their nature, their sex is an abyss, a mysterious dark room, an unexplored, yet claimed country.

First, Derrida says that Western Philosophy is concerned with the elusive and irresistible search for Truth, or Logos. This is logocentricism, and its structures are organized through a series of binary oppositions: Man/Woman; Light/Dark; Dry/Wet. (More simply: A/-A.) The first term is desirable, the other shunned.

The shunned figures, the marginalized figures, the veils of philosophical discourse, the shadows, the enigmas, and figurative language itself, are, one can say, a resistance to Logos, the One, the Light, Truth, or whatever name it goes under these days.

Derrida also argues that speech itself can never manifest Truth directly. That speech, like writing, is structured through difference between the signifier and the sign.

“No actual language could achieve the simultaneity of signifier and signified, an idealization that is a consequence of the way in which Platonism and Christianity characterized the divine.” (Thank you Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, a different kind of bible, if you will.)

Structuralism analyzes the importance of binary oppositions, and now, through Derrida, Cixous, and other post-structuralists, the obscured ideas, the veils, the dark, infinite spaces, are also being analyzed, and then transformed.

Cixous talks of Écriture Féminine, writing through the body, writing in white ink, in Mother’s milk. She says that Écriture Féminine is characterized by the repressed mouths, both of them, woman’s sects. Écriture Féminine is about multiplicity, and forsaking once and for all the idea that woman is simply Not Man, or rather, a castrated man.

It’s A/B.

Not A/-A.

Cixous urges women to steal their voices back from men, to ignite their mouths, impregnate their words, and soar through themselves, soar above, on their own, without the phallogo-structures of men.

To do this, women must shirk the masculine tongue, the father tongue.

Cixous speaks positively and optimistically about women’s ability to reclaim their right to speak and write in a feminine style. She explains that to be effective, this style must take on an unconventional form, “sweeping away syntax, breaking from the famous thread which acts for men as a surrogate umbilical cord.” By abandoning the linear and orderly characteristics associated with traditional masculine style, Cixous uses the phallocentric language to her advantage. She acknowledges phallocentrism and then, through contradictions, she uncovers the inherent shortcomings. This inadequacy is based upon the realization that Cixous is not able to say exactly what she would like using a masculine discourse. Because Cixous does not have the option of speaking though a feminine discourse, she is forced to use alternative techniques in order to relay a direct and accurate meaning with a masculine language.

Cixous speaks about women’s writing: about what it will do.

For this, she uses Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters, the one with the hundreds of hissing snakes for hair, the unlucky girl cursed by Athena to be so ugly, so horrible, that her very gaze will turn men to stone. In a battle with Perseus, Zeus’ clever child uses his own shield to decapitate and defeat the hideous lovely Gorgon.

Freud once wrote a short essay on Medusa. He associates Medusa with castration and decapitation, whose image is both terrifying and ambiguous. The snakes on her head are a denial of the castration, are the act itself with the hissing penises and the what-not; and being turned to stone is also castrating (powerlessness, to make passive, to make a woman), as well as exciting, a form of arousal. His gaze, the gaze upon Medusa, woman, is so powerful, that the viewer is transformed, suffers a mini-death, an orgasm. Is rendered motionless by her figure, her form, her beauty.

But this is all to assume that woman is a castrated man, that she suffers penis envy, and requires either a deep dicking or a child to feel full, complete.

Cixous says men say that there are two unrepresentable things: death and vaginas. This is because vaginas need to be associated with death. Men need to fear women, they need to fear vaginas.

[Kenophobia. Apeirophobia. Thalassophobia. Menophobia. Kolpophobia. Gynophobia.]

Medusa is simply a manifestation of men’s fear of large empty spaces, infinity, the sea, menstruation, vaginas, women. And of course, castration.

This is why Cixous transforms Medusa. She must revise the notion of femininity itself.

Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.

Write, Cixous suggests, demands. Write, write, write.

It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm that is, in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic*, that is, in a place other than silence.

* A reference to Lacan’s theory of the psyche. “The Symbolic” is the dimension of language, law, and the father; in contrast “The Imaginary” is modeled on the mother-child dyad or on the relation between an infant and its mirror image.

1st image: Laurent-Honoré Marqueste. Perseus and the Gorgon

2nd image: Nancy Farmer. Medusa in Modesty

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