The Lands Between: Working in Interdisciplinary Spaces

Gerard Loughlin has referred to interdisciplinary scholars as ‘those who work at the edges … who wander, though determinedly, in the lands between, in places that are disconcertingly different.’ [1] Loughlin is writing of the volume Literature and Theology: New Interdisciplinary Spaces, a 2011 collection of essays that took stock of what the authors expressed as a time of transition and vulnerability in the interdisciplinary ‘field’ of literature and theology.

Contrary to what one might expect in such a climate, Heather Walton, the editor of the volume, notes in her introduction that there has been ‘an abundance of vibrant and passionate research’ in literature and theology, ‘these joint champions of alterity and imagination’, as she puts it, that ‘when placed either in tension or in partnership’ prompt ‘an alchemical reaction. Perhaps it is the energy of this conjunction that has proved so attractive, for the term “literature and theology” is now used to refer to the place where a whole range of disciplinary concerns are drawn together to engage in depth.’ [2]

© Routledge

It is this sense of attraction and depth Walton speaks to that appeals to me in my own interdisciplinary work in ‘literature and theology’, which has been influenced greatly by research undertaken since the beginning of this decade at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts, where Walton was director, along with David Jasper, the Centre’s founder. My conversations within this truly interdisciplinary community of scholars became the foundation for my doctoral thesis, which drew upon a wide and diverse range of resources—critical theory, Catholic theology, television, art, and literature.

This work (to be published this fall as A Poetics of Church) is structured as a literary and theological pilgrimage, moving from models of the institutional Catholic Church—represented by Tina Beattie’s critique of Hans Urs von Balthasar in her book New Catholic Feminism—into imaginative textual spaces, which I create by bringing together an unlikely collection of thinkers: the 16th-century Basque founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola; the French thinkers Gaston Bachelard and Hélène Cixous; the French poet Yves Bonnefoy; the English television playwright Dennis Potter. By revealing affinities amidst their differences, I discovered the kind of energy referred to by Walton. Inspired especially by the reading and writing practices of Cixous, the thesis and what I have written since, attempts to exemplify Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine—‘feminine writing’—that she suggests ‘will bring into existence alternative forms of relation, perception and expression’, a writing, a place elsewhere that ‘invents new worlds’. [3]

I came to this type of interdisciplinary work after a turn from more conventional research in ecclesiology. Ten years ago as a Master of Divinity student at a Jesuit school, I fell in love with theology, biblical studies, and Christian ethics, finding a natural affinity for Ignatian pedagogy, out of which my Jesuit teachers would urge me to ‘pay attention to my affect’, as it would tell me how to move forward. That one piece of advice affected my writing as I became increasingly aware of my response to texts and began to incorporate the personal in my academic writing.

Then I came across a text of Cixous’s, one that remains my favourite, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, which I read every morning for inspiration whilst writing my Masters thesis.

Out of both the formative experience of my intellectual and pastoral training by the Jesuits and my newfound discovery of Cixous, I began to develop the aforementioned reading and writing practices. It was a turn, a hinge, from which to turn to the interdisciplinary doctoral work that sought alternatives to Church.

For my next project I want to explore transformative possibilities of reading and writing women, focusing on Cixous’s reading encounter with the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector and my reading of Cixous. Cixous experienced a ‘transfiguration’ in her writing life after ten years sans voir un seul visage de femme humaine, ‘without seeing a single woman’s face’. [4] The moment is described by Cixous as religious and has biblical resonance: ‘This night the writing came to me — Clarice, her angel’s footsteps in my room. […] Again the voice of truth, her light voice, the stroke of truth in the desert my room. My angel struggled with me; my angel of poverty called me, its voice Clarice… I struggled, she read me, in the fire of her writing, I let her read me, she read herself into me at the ground-floor of my soul.’ [5]

The text that had such a remarkable impact was Água Viva, a title that itself has biblical resonance with its reminder of living water, or, stream of life. It was the first work of Lispector’s that Cixous read, coming across it by accident, a moment of grace. Água Viva, Cixous writes in ‘The Last Painting’, ‘aims to write-paint, aims to work on the gesture of writing as painting’. It is, she says, ‘a book of instants, a book from which each page could be taken out like a picture.’ [6]

Let us consider a page from Água Viva, one that shows that to read Lispector or Cixous is to wander determinedly in the lands between, in places disconcertingly different:

I have seen wild horses in the meadows where at night the white horse—king of nature—cast into the high air its long neigh of glory. I have had perfect relations with them. I remember standing with the same haughtiness as the horse and running my hand through its naked fur. Through its wild mane. I felt like this: the woman and the horse.

Further down the page:

‘I am melancholy. It is morning. But I know the secret of pure mornings. And I relax in the melancholy.’

Next paragraph:

‘I know the story of a rose.’ [7]

It is indeed a book of strange and wondrous instants. Lispector disobeys the rules, follows no conventions. Boundaries are crossed, the strangest and most ancient, that of shifting from human to animal, human to plant. In moving to the nonhuman, she shows what it is to be human. You can see here how reading this book would be a rescue of Cixous. Why she would read Clarice (whom she always calls by her first name) and find her exhilarating. But what of me?

For me, Cixous’s most appealing text remains Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Here was a woman writing magically, subversively, and doing it beautifully, humanly, humanely. Was there a particular transformative moment for me, like the one she experienced with Lispector? No, but there were many moments of spiritual textual conversion, such as this piece of text :

And all the people I love and whom I have mentioned are beings who are bent on directing their writing toward this truth-over-there, with unbelievable labor; they are fighting against the elements and principally against the innumerable immediate and exterior and interior enemies. The exterior is very powerful at the present time. We are living particles, fireflies in the world, and around us resounds an enormous concert of noise-and-rumour-producing machines, creating a din and rumors destined to ensure we don’t hear the voice of truth. [8]

Another hinge, another turn?



[1] Loughlin, Gerard, frontispiece in Walton, Heather (ed), Literature and Theology: New Interdisciplinary Spaces (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).
[2] Walton, Heather (ed), Literature and Theology: New Interdisciplinary Spaces, pp. 1-2.
[3] Sellers, Susan (ed), Introduction to The Hélène Cixous Reader (London: Routledge, 1994), p. xxix.
[4] Cixous, Hélène, vivre l’orange/To Live the Orange, trans. Ann Liddle and Sarah Cornell (Paris: des femmes, 1979), pp. 48-49.
[5] Ibid., p. 42.
[6] Cixous, Hélène, ‘The Last Painting or the Portrait of God’, in ‘Coming to Writing’ and Other Essays, ed. Deborah Jenson, trans. Sarah Cornell et. al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 104-105.
[7] Lispector, Clarice, Água Viva, ed. Benjamin Moser, trans. Stefan Tobler (London: Penguin, 2012), p. 44.
[8] Cixous, Hélène, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 6.


  • Jennifer Reek has a PhD from the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts, University of Glasgow, and a Master of Divinity from Regis College, the Jesuit Faculty of the University of Toronto. Her research often engages intersections of poetry and faith between Ignatian spirituality and postmodern theory and literature. She is the author of A Poetics of Church (forthcoming, Routledge, 2017). Her essays have appeared in Heythrop College’s ‘Power of the Word’ project’s first two volumes, and she is co-editor of the fourth volume, Thresholds of Wonder: Poetry, Philosophy and Theology in Conversation (forthcoming, Routledge, 2017). She currently teaches seminars in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition as an adjunct professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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