Hélène Cixous

Start Free Trial

Robert Boyle (review date Spring 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "James Joyce," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 262-70.

[In the following excerpt from a review in which he examines a number of books on the work of James Joyce, Boyle offers a negative assessment of The Exile of James Joyce. He states that while it reflects "intelligence and industry," this study is an "ugly failure and will appear more so as time reveals its flimsy biases and its prejudicial aims."]

The most massive single volume of Joycean criticism of the last few years, recently translated [as The Exile of James Joyce], is Helene Cixous' publication of what was, I suppose, the logorrheic dissertation which helped to earn her Docteur dés Lettres in 1968, and which, according to the book jacket, "shows, and shows convincingly, that Joyce's consciousness was his biography and his biography wrote his books"—which book-jacket gibberish might make us fear that the book might attempt with Joyce what Stephen attempted with Shakespeare. One thing I can weakly murmur, having read every closely printed page of this 765-page book: it is about 600 pages too long. Most of it is more or less accurate cribbing from some of the two thousand sources Cixous says she studied, more or less likely conclusions from a lively and opinionated French intuition, a syllable-by-syllable analysis of those portions of Joyce's text Cixous has dissected (which does not include Finnegans Wake), and an uninhibited projection of a sometimes brilliant and sometimes banal French construct on the minds and works of Joyce, of Joyce's commentators, and, unfortunately, of Joyce's family.

Some of the brilliant aspects would include her insights into creative doubt, as she analyzes it primarily in relation to Exiles, and her perception of Joyce's use of opposition to faith and to God the Creator as a source of artistic inspiration. She perceives that the artist as God wants to be united to and love his literary characters (free beings, it seems, in Exiles, though she surprisingly denies freedom to the main characters of Ulysses). She seems to say that Joyce, as artist-God, frees his characters, when he does, by building all his kingdom on doubt (unlike the God of faith, he is not omniscient). Thus he builds out of himself the human situation of essential frustration, providing no answers, and making us see the chaosmos of Alle, a frightening but fascinating vision.

As I read through the book, I was struck from time to time by what seemed remarkable profundity and insight in her treatment of Joyce's growth and development in dealing with words, of his movement from outside "objective" reality to the inner world of the imagination, of the effect of his dreams and visions on his work (as her detailed and beautiful treatment of Stephen's contemplation of the bird-girl in the water, marked, like Shem, on her skin with the sign of Thoth), of such triumphs of gathering together many sources into a single illuminating insight as in her treatment of "lapwing." But as I try now to bring all those moments together to say something positive about this attempt at heroic criticism (a massive creation in words comparable to Michelangelo's David), they shrivel in my mind and get lost in the nauseating, even poisonous fumes from her non-Irish stew. The opinionated condemnation of the Irish race and of all things Irish; the often uncritical and sometimes misleading dependence, when they tend to bolster her intuitions, on biased and incompetent critics; her incredible statement about the main characters of Ulysses : "They are not caught in...

(This entire section contains 974 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

a dramatic situation which requires them to manifest their freedom; they are simply living through an ordinary day"—having developed that monstrosity, she finds no difficulty about saying, twelve pages later, "This day, 16 June, is not an ordinary day …"; her ignorance of and sometimes childish errors about Joyce's use of scholastic theology and philosophy; her patronizing tone and treatment of English critics, like Pater and especially Wilde, who achieve better than she does some of her principal aims, as in establishing the necessary exile of the artist into his own creating spirit—these and many other things urge me to condemn the book.

I hesitate to reject a book reflecting so much intelligence and industry, but my final judgment is that it is an ugly failure and will appear more so as time reveals its flimsy biases and its prejudicial aims. The determined effort, for example, to make Nora Joyce fit not only the distorted Molly Bloom constructed by Cixous, but to find Nora in all the other more or less degraded Dublin women (i.e., Gretta, Bertha, Zoe, Stephen's perverse version of the Blessed Virgin, Erin herself) who look so queerly inhuman in their new French context, will surely grow in distasteful clarity as time passes. The same can be said of her view of Bloom's "suicide," achieved by determinedly ignoring vital aspects of Joyce's text, in which the surprisingly belligerent Bloom has a chance of out-flowering Boylan, and her simplistic depiction of Stephen exiling himself into the cosmos to write, if not Ulysses (as Tindall once pictured the situation), then another book, Finnegans Wake, given to us here in texts quoted mainly from Clive Hart (whose scholarly and cautious "may have been's" easily turn in Cixous' confident intuition into "were's"). Cixous has, apparently, not read Finnegans Wake at all (she speaks of "Kate the hen who finds the Letter"), a sad lack in so monumental a critical effort. It is like carving David from pedestal to navel and leaving the great rough mass of crowning marble untouched. I find, in any case, with sorrow and some fear of faulty vision distorting for me a creative triumph of criticism, that her critical analog to the heroic David reveals, like the frustrated Shem of Finnegans Wake's ninth chapter, only a gigantic bimbamb bum whose "funnylegs are leanly."


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Hélène Cixous 1937–

Algerian-born French theorist, novelist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, dramatist, screenwriter, and librettist.

The following entry presents criticism on Cixous's critical works through 1992.

A major figure in contemporary feminist critical theory, Cixous is known for works that analyze and attempt to counter Western culture's traditional concepts of male and female. A proponent of écriture féminine, or feminine writing, Cixous strives in all of her works to establish a uniquely feminine perspective, both as a kind of corrective to what she and many feminist theorists view as the traditionally masculine character of Western discourse and as a methodology with which to critique that discourse. In the United States, Cixous's best known work is La jeune née (1975; The Newly Born Woman), which is recognized as being markedly influenced by the writings of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher and founder of the critical method known as deconstructionism; Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher who proposed a linguistic theory of the unconscious; and Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis. Concerning Cixous's significance to contemporary thought, Morag Shiach has noted: "Her essays on writing and sexual difference have been a crucial point of reference for feminist theorists and critics, and her insistence on the transformative and broadly political dimensions of writing has constituted an important challenge to the unfocused aestheticism of much of literary studies."

Biographical Information

Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria. Her father, who was of French-colonial background, was a physician, and her mother, of Austro-German heritage, was a midwife. Members of her family were Sephardic Jews, and Cixous grew up with a sense of kinship with persecuted groups. Her father died when she was very young, an event some critics suggest informs her writing. In her teens, Cixous read myths, the German Romantics (including Heinrich von Kleist), and English literature, especially the writings of William Shakespeare. Cixous moved to France in her late teens, where she earned an agrégation d'anglais degree in 1959 and became a docteur dès letters in 1968. She was a founder of the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes, a liberal school offering an alternative to traditional education, and the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines in 1974. She also cofounded, with Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov, the prestigious literary and critical journal Poétique in 1968. Cixous has taught at various universities in France, including the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, and the University of Bordeaux; she has also been a visiting professor at such institutions as Yale University, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College.

Major Works

Cixous's first published work of criticism was her doctoral thesis, L'Exil de James Joyce (1968; The Exile of James Joyce). In this work she examines Joyce's experimental literary techniques and the ways in which they express his belief in the mutually influential relationship between linguistic and mental structures. She criticizes Joyce, however, for emphasizing a connection between guilt and death; she argues that this leads to the unnecessary paradox, detectable in all of his works, that one must "lose" in order to "gain," kill in order to live. In Prénoms de personne (1974), a collection of essays, Cixous presents psychoanalytic analyses of literary texts by Freud, August Heinrich Hoffmann, Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe, and Joyce. These essays deal variously with the concept of the "unified subject," or the individual's sense of being or "possessing" a distinct, whole personality. In 1975 Cixous published "Le rire de la Méduse" (1975; "The Laugh of the Medusa"), a well-known essay that examines Freud's concept of castration anxiety. Freud argued that this anxiety stems from a fear of female genitalia, perceived by males at a subconscious level as the result of castration—the female body understood subconsciously as "lacking" a phallus. Freud suggested that the mythical story of Medusa, in which people turn to stone when they look at the snake-entwined head of the Gorgon, could be read as addressing this psychoanalytic fear. In "The Laugh of the Medusa" Cixous argues, following many theorists, that this masculine view of women as "lacking" has broad social and political implications and manifestations. The Newly Born Woman consists of three parts: Catherine Clément's essay "The Guilty One," Cixous's "Sorties," and "Exchange," a dialogue between the two authors in which they discuss the similarities and differences in their views on women and writing. Through their readings of various historical, literary, and psychoanalytical texts, the two explore the role played by language in determining women's secondary place in society. They go on to propose that Western culture's repressive language must be replaced with a language of liberation. Elizabeth Wright has noted that "the general thesis of this book is that if women are going to take part in history they must write themselves into it." La venue à l'écriture (1977), coauthored with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon, further evinces Cixous's preoccupations with language, psychoanalysis, and feminine pleasure. According to Verena Andermatt Conley, in this work Cixous "traces the origin of women's writing to the mother's voice and body." "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays (1991) collects translations of a number of Cixous's critical works written between 1976 and 1989, including "Clarice Lispector: An Approach," "Tancredi Continues," and the title essay, which is a translation of La venue à l'écriture.

Critical Reception

Reaction to Cixous's critical works has been mixed. Many critics have praised her attempts to revolutionize traditional beliefs about women and writing. Others, however, have castigated what they consider the contradictoriness of her work and her intentional resistance to analysis. Toril Moi has stated: "Her style is often intensely metaphorical, poetic and explicitly anti-theoretical, and her central images create a dense web of signifiers that offers no obvious edge to seize hold of for the analytically minded critic." Some reviewers also suggest that Cixous's attempts to redefine gender differences reduces women to what one critic has called an "anatomical essence," and that her works are, in fact, antifeminist. Others argue, like Moi, that Cixous's work is expansive rather than reductive and "seems to displace the whole problem of women and writing away from an empiricist emphasis on the sex of the author towards an analysis of the articulations of sexuality and desire within literary text itself." Most critics, however, praise Cixous's belief that the creation of a new language is, as stated by Nicole Irving, "a precondition of a new reality." Cixous herself has asserted: "Writing is the very possibility of change, the space from which a subversive thought can spring forth, the forward runner in any movement to change social and cultural strategies."

Brian Duren (essay date 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Cixous' Exorbitant Texts," in Sub-Stance, No. 32, 1981, pp. 39-51.

[Duren is an American educator. In the essay below, he notes that Cixous, in such works as La jeune née and Prénoms de personne, attempts to undermine and subvert traditional notions of literature and language.]

Quelque chose d'exorbité, de sourd à la réprobation d'autrui, élève au sublime ces poèmes et ces figures de couleur violente.

                  (Georges Bataille, "William Blake")

… often I have wondered whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body.

                      (Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

The name. Bizarre. Cixous? That's not French. Not proper. It's a non-name. Foreign. Strange. An impossible name. Not proper to French. "A name that no one knew how to write and it was me." An improper name. "That's a name!… It was enough to get you thrown out!" "J'étais personne." I was nobody. So Hélène Cixous, enfant terrible of what Americans call the deconstructionists, avant-garde novelist, playwright, critic, feminist, revolutionary, returns in all of her self-portraits, to this opposition of the propre and the impropre, of otherness, of the other as impropre. And, in the context of French imperialism in Algeria, to her own otherness, to which her name, as an index, points: Cixous—an origin that is absolutely foreign: the father, of Sephardic Jews—from Spain, Morocco, Algeria: the mother, of Ashkenazic Jews—from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Paris. "I am (not) Arab," writes Cixous, a pied noir [the critic adds in a footnote: "The European settlers, who controlled much of Algeria, were nicknamed pied noirs by the Arabs because they wore black shoes rather than sandals"], but not French, for whom Arabic is the brother tongue and German the mother tongue and French the colonialist's tongue. A wandering Jew, an exile, a woman, the other—impropre.

What Cixous frequently calls the Empire of the Propre is not an empire in just the historical sense, like the former French empire, of which Algeria was a part. The propre that Cixous attacks is itself an empire, a political and moral empire that at once includes and excludes, an empire that is semantic, ontological, and sexual: the propre is property (propriété), possession, the self (mon propre, my own), the generally accepted meaning of a word (le sens propre), that which defines or identifies something (the propre of the novel, e.g., is narration, plot, characterization, etc.), the clean and the orderly (which recalls Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents), the ethical propre and impropre, and finally, in Cixous, masculine and feminine. The propre, contained in such verbs as exproprier, approprier, s'approprier, also designates the Hegelian dialectic of appropriation, in which the subject's expenditures, as Cixous would say, reap a profit, which is being, or self, and loss thus becomes gain:

All history is inseparable from economy in the restricted sense of the word, from a certain type of saving…. This economy as law of appropriation is a phallocentric production. The opposition propre/non-propre (the valorization of the propre) organizes the opposition identity/difference. Everything happens as if, in a flash, man and being were appropriated one to the other. [La jeune née]

Her reading of the dialectic, or economy, of appropriation is mediated by some of Hegel's most radical offspring: Freud, Bataille, Lacan, Derrida. Cixous locates the master, Death, of the Hegelian dialectic in the fear of separation, of loss, of castration; the dialectic of recognition of master and slave is interpreted in Lacanian terms as the specularization by the effaced other (woman, in Cixous) of the masculine subject's fetishized self, the phallus.

Cixous' frequent use of such terms as economy, économie restreinte, restricted economy, and économie générale, general economy, underscores the tremendous influence of Bataille. Bataille's reading of Hegel's economy of appropriation is most evident in his analysis of the potlatch, as described by Marcel Maus in the Essai sur le don, which Bataille cites as the major influence on his La Part maudite. The tremendous expenditures, the loss (which Bataille links to unconscious forms of death and separation, as psychoanalysis describes them) are recuperated by means of the recognition that the other grants the subject—recognition that is tantamount to rank, being (which, in Lacanian terms—and Cixous frequently brings us back to Lacan—is the phallus). Her reading of Bataille echoes Derrida's reading, in "De l'économie restreinte à l'économie générale: un Hégelianisme sans réserve." It is the excess, the impropre, the importance accorded the pulsion, Trieb, or drive, the expenditures of energy without attempts at recuperation through transcendence, and the laughter, that mocks the Aufhebung, that Cixous constantly returns to in Bataille:

Why this comedy whose ultimate act, the flirting of the master with death, would make Bataille laugh—Bataille amusing himself in pushing Hegel to the edge of the abyss into which a civilized man prevents himself from falling? Of this abyss which functions as a metaphor for death, for the feminine genitals. [La jeune née]

Cixous' remarks become very clear if we think of a text such as the Histoire de l'oeil, "The Story of the Eye" (which is also a story of the I), one of Bataille's most exorbitant texts, a blinding joke of loss, literally the story of an eye, or of an orb that is at once eye, testicle, and egg; consider, for example, the bullfighting scene, where, at the moment the bullfighter Granero has his eye put out by a bull, Simone, who has just bit into a bull's raw testicle (compared to an eye), "slowly and surely" inserts the other testicle into her vagina—the "abyss into which a civilized man prevents himself from falling." Cixous' "I" or "she" thrust themselves, too, into the other body, but that body is no longer the scene of castration; it is, rather, the black continent of the unconscious, the improper body, with its mysterious and dangerous drives, that can be known only through the representatives of those drives, or pulsions, only through fantasies (fantasmes) and dreams.

The impropre, death, is also that which determines the closed economy of desire (the desire that desires itself, that desires the same, and never desires the other); in the margins of many of Cixous' analyses of the economy of desire is a critique of Freud and Lacan, on the one hand, and of literature on the other. Prénoms de personne (a reading of Freud, Hoffmann, Kleist, Poe, and Joyce) opens with such a critique, that aligns the institutions of literature and psychoanalysis with the conservative politics of the propre.

I have always loved desire. Not at all the one which believes itself to be determined by its relationship to a lack [manque] that it raises and from which it arises, so well (or so poorly) that it doesn't arise: this one, accomplice of the forces of death that it skirts and dreads, becomes identical with its limit. It frightens itself, it fears being satisfied. It needs to maintain itself with the aid of ruses at some distance from an actualization: because it does not venture as far as the real, it has hardly any chance of changing it. It desires itself more than it desires its object; it is well known, this desire to desire, which passes so often for desire itself of which it is only the regret and the prudence. It moves forward indirectly, through paradoxes, sustains itself with contradictions, assures itself of its impossibility. The spirit of weighing and balancing [l'esprit de calcul] animates it and manages its investments and counter-investments, so that the lack [manque] should never come to lack [manquer]. It conserves itself by surrounding itself with danger, enveloping itself with lures [leurres] and veiling itself with absence. It is well known: it makes the law and authorizes the arranging of the social order that it pretends to abhor: it is on its weakness that power counts, on its detours that reformism is constituted, on its petrifying fear of castration that the Church is constructed.

Let us quickly fill in the psychoanalytic texts that have been subsumed in the margins of this elliptical passage. The manque (lack), leurre (lure), and voile (veil), identify Lacan's discourse, just as the detours and ruses link Lacan's thesis concerning desire (i.e., that desire is born of lack, of castration, separation, death, that the subject's desire, his [ideal] alienated self is a lure, that this self, the phallus, is always veiled) with the thesis that Freud develops [in] Civilization and Its Discontents, namely that man's desire is in fact a desire for death, for a return which is death, and that life, as well as the history of civilization, is a series of detours, ruses to defer that which one desires, and dreads, most. The "investments and counter-investments" which in French also mean cathexis and anti-cathexis, indicate the closed economy of this desire that is always determined by death. Innumerable examples of such a closed economy in literature can of course be located. What better examples than Proust and Flaubert of a desire that nourishes itself with absence, that constantly, through the most elaborate detours, defers the realization of desire (so that the lack will never lack), the better to project—to fetishize—something where there is nothing? Our literary history has more frequently than not struck desire with guilt, and articulated that guilt either through a series of binary oppositions aligning desire with death, or through a narrator (such as Balzac's) who visits the most implacable punishment on those characters who dare to desire.

Yet Cixous insists that "writing is the very possibility of change, the space from which a subversive thought can spring forth, the forward runner in any movement to change social and cultural structures." Specifically, in her own texts, that which is most subversive is the force of the other, a force such that the propre, the self, is forever being (though never becomes) undermined. Constantly referring to herself as a voleuse, a thief and a flier, she mocks the literature of the propre, literature as the property of an autonomous self. Her autobiographical essays, such as "Sorties" (which means the action of going out, leaving; an exit; a sum of money spent) and "La Venue à l'écriture," are readings of texts, sorties, in the sense that they do not guide the reader toward (an illusion of) presence, of a self, at the center of the work, but rather project him/her to-ward the margins of the text and beyond into other texts. Rejecting, in her literary criticism, the aesthetics and politics of mastery, she shifts constantly from the third person to the second and first persons singular, thus clearly implicating her subjectivity in her readings of texts and tearing the veil of truth that traditional literary criticism wears to conceal its real status of fiction. For Cixous, the text is an imaginary space in which reader/writer can temporarily overcome the effects of castration, which she regards as the repression, or even foreclosure, of the subject's other by the symbolic order. "I have been Kleist's Penthesilea, not without being Achilles, I have been Antony for Cleopatra and she for him, I have also been Juliet because in Romeo I have overcome the cult of the fathers." All of her texts attempt to express the multiple and complex pulsions, the drives, of a bisexual subject that is many, a subject which she at times designates by the term plus-je (literally, "more-I," but also an incomplete anagram of pulsion). Most of the texts that Cixous chooses to read are somehow subversive of the symbolic order of binary oppositions, in which one term is always negative: propre/impropre, same/other. Her essay on Kleist's Penthesilea articulates at once Kleist's need to merge with the other, and, because of the insistence of Cixous['s] style, her own search for the other: "She [Penthesilea] is in him [Kleist], has always been in him like a wound, like his very wound … she is the cruel, adorable irruption of the other in him, of she whom he carries, that he makes, of whom he is a part, of whom he is the place, the woman … gone from him, his femininity, is that which of him, man, lover, poet, always escapes him." Her reading of the play, which frequently echoes Blake's poetry ("Is only beautiful that which excedes … which shoots forward and is lost from sight"), stresses its exorbitance, the excessive expenditures of love, energy, self, that seem to efface momentarily the orb of the propre. The conventional male/female opposition that structures the metaphorical discourse of love and war is largely displaced in the battle between the two lovers, a battle which is a kind of foreplay in sexual exchange; Penthesilea, pressing her thighs against her horse's flanks, pursues Achilles, who flees, but only to entice her to follow. He "melts with love and love mingles him with the woman that he allows to arise in him." He becomes a flower, and she the sun. Penthesilea dominates, argues Cixous, only to "destroy the space of domination" and allow each to love the other at once as male and female. The abyss that each character successfully crosses to begin realizing his otherness suddenly reappears, at least for Penthesilea, who thinks she has been betrayed by Achilles. For Cixous, the play ends with the "vengeance of castration"; the "old anxiety," Kleist's inability to resist the power of the Law, poisons Penthesilea, who proceeds to mutilate, to dismember, literally to devour Achilles' body, "love's body," to violently incorporate that which cannot be introjected.

One of the most persistent themes in Cixous' work is the Angst that overwhelms Penthesilea, that paralyzes the subject (always the victim of his/her desire to be one, separate, complete, whole) when it is torn between amour propre, self-love, the same, and amour-autre, other-love, between the propre and the subject's repressed otherness. It is at that moment of hesitation, a mere split second, that she is most likely to be the victim of what Cixous calls the "esprit de calcul," the spirit of weighing and balancing; then, for the subject overwhelmed by Angst, difference becomes rupture, abyss, wound, béance, alienation, mutilation—as in this passage from the novel, Angst:

It happened in a flash: you are walking in a garden with the man who is your mother. Suddenly the earth trembles. A tear. He extends his hand toward you, he tells you: "Take my hand. It's not serious. And jump." You would like to jump. You would like to take his hand…. But at the moment when you tense your muscles, in the instant when you are going to stretch forth your hand, in the infinitesimal instant which doesn't separate you yet, a prudent reflex tells you: "Halt! Be careful! Have you taken your measures? Are you capable of jumping? This wound doesn't look good. Don't you see it is getting bigger? What in fact is this tear?" All this does not even last a second. During which a voice also tells you: "You should think about his well-being. And if he were to faint away? After all he is mortal. If the earth were to burst open, at the moment when you cross? One must know how to hold back. This prudence is not bad. It is out of love that you oscillate." Not even a second. You raise your eyes, you stretch forth your hand. But he has withdrawn his hand. He is not looking at me, he is not smiling at me. His face is strange, as if the day had fled it….

What happened? Nothing. A fissure. A mistake in calculation. The earth had a tear. I am afraid the tear might get bigger and become an abyss. I mistook the body. While I was examining the earth it's flesh that cracked. In a flash, the belly open, an immense wound. As soon as I looked at its lips which are ugly and black, I had no more strength, disgust overwhelmed me, I had to back away so that I would not hurl myself in.

This passage articulates the closed economy of desire that Cixous describes in Prénoms de personne, the investments and counter-investments of a subject that uses death as its accomplice, that frightens itself with death so as not to leave itself, but rather to return, to conserve itself. It is by identifying the other with death, by denying her own otherness, that the subject mutilates herself, and alienates her body, which becomes repulsive, marked by death, an abyss. And so the subject reaffirms, through denial, the Law of difference as castration.

Cixous' Cleopatra, another mythical figure like Penthesilea, created from what is at once a reading, and a very free adaptation, of Plutarch and Shakespeare, follows immediately after her reading of Kleist in "Sorties." Cleopatra, as Cixous envisions, or fantasizes her, is a woman who, unlike Penthesilea, seems to overcome Angst and the power of the Law from which Penthesilea could not escape. Cixous reads Cleopatra against the backdrop of the Roman Empire of the propre, with its "wars, its rivalries and its phallus tournaments, so grotesquely represented by the game of penis-chess ["jeu d'échec au-pénis"] that the imperialistic powers of the triumvirate play with the petty gravity that makes history"; and against the backdrop of the Empire of amour-propre of the imperialists: "can love which keeps accounts be called love," asks Cixous rhetorically. Cleopatra is an amorous force of deconstruction; Cixous quotes Shakespeare's Antony, "At fast and loose she has beguiled me to the heart of loss," and adds that Antony is mourning his "propre image," the image of his propre, his self, or phallus. The death of Antony and Cleopatra recalls Cixous' statement concerning her own writing: it is the "assault that love gives to nothingness." Cleopatra, "at the point of the phallus in which she resides," hoists up the dying Antony—"come, come, come"—and takes him to her. Cixous describes him as "dead in a magnificent erection," an erection that is at once Antony's erection and the erect pyramid, an erection that subverts the monument to the (Hegelian and Freudian) master, Death, and would deconstruct an archetype of property, of the propre, the self, the fetish. Cixous' reading, following Shakespeare's text, skips one and one-half scenes, and goes on directly to the scene on Cleopatra's death, creating an effect much like that of a cinematographic dissolve. In immediate response to the death of Antony "in a magnificent erection," Cleopatra hastens to the marriage bed, takes the asps to her breasts, and pretends to nurse them; "even in death, she is the one who nourishes, and nourishing is nourished with love." The dissolving of the two scenes into one, thus uniting the two bodies and the two deaths, intimates Cixous' fantasy of a body-text that sensuously, carnally, is forever reaching into death, and bringing the loss (the lost other) closer: "To write in order to touch with letters, with lips, with breath, to caress with the tongue, to lick with the soul, to taste the blood of the loved body; of life distanced; to saturate distance with desire."

Cleopatra, like all of Cixous' mythical figures (Penthesilea, Medusa, Dora), is excess, the excess of the body, of its pulsions, its drives. Her Medusa is not lack, but the joyful laughter of Dionysus: "it suffices to look directly at the Medusa to see her: she is not mortal. She is beautiful and she is laughing." Her Dora is the "poetic body," the "true 'mistress' of the signifier," one of the "admirable hysterics" who speaks in "carnal and passionate body-words," and whose desire breaks up the restricted economy of desire that unites her parents, and Mr. and Mrs. K.

Cixous' texts belong to that tradition (Rimbaud, the surrealists, Bataille) which views writing as possible only because the subject has spent a (interminable) season in hell, during which the self is subverted by the other; in Cixous, the season in hell is described as the tearing of the webbed threads of the fiction of the self ("tu es trame déchiquetée"), the self which is the "same" "circumscribed by same," by its propres codes, which make the self lisible to itself:

Writing—begins, without you, without I, without law, without knowing, without light, without hope, without bonds, without anyone near you, for if the world's history continues, you are not in it, you are "in" "hell" and hell is there where I am not but where that which is me, when I am without place, feels itself die again throughout time, where not-me drags me further from me, and where what remains of me is no longer anything but suffering without myself, suffering never circumscribed by same, for me, open, does not cease to feel the sense, the soul, the corporeal and spiritual substances of me flow away, me empties itself, and yet, more and more heavy, you sink, you are engulfed in the abyss of the non-rapport. ["La Venue à l'écriture"]

The trame, cloth, veil, tissue, or text, can never be completely torn, the system of rapports, codes, language itself, can never totally disappear, for the obvious reason that the subject could no longer be conscious, could no longer live; Bataille, whom Cixous frequently echoes:

Vulgar knowledge is in us like another tissue!… In a way, the condition by which I would see would be to go out of, to emerge from the "tissue." And I should probably add too: this condition by which I would see would be my death.

But this loss, the death, is also excess, the excess of the body; the subject becomes, in Cixous, "flesh which allows the strange or foreign to pass through it," a "being without defense, without resistance … totally engulfed by the other" and "traversed by songs of unheard of purity, for they are not addressed to anyone, they gush forth, they spring up, out of the throats of your unknown feminine inhabitants." These chants, songs, unheard (of) melodies "sweeter," as Keats wrote, than heard ones, addressed to personne, no one, and issuing from personne, resemble the psychic representatives, or delegates described by Freud, or the messengers and symbols that Nicolas Abraham describes as issuing from the Somatic.

The other text, the other body—how can they be known, if they can never become conscious? The answer is: obliquely, through their symbols, delegates, or representatives, namely fantasies, dreams. "The Somatic," writes Abraham, "is what I cannot touch directly … it is that of which I would know nothing if its representatives, my fantasy, were not there to send me back to it, to its source as it were, and its ultimate justification. Reading the other body, then, can only be done through a certain kind of writing, best conceptualized as an ex-pulsion, the outward movement of the pulsion, Trieb, or drive, from the forever unconscious body, to the text via the symbols, or delegates, of the pulsions. Cixous' texts are overflowing with images of ex-pulsion—of the voice, of the child, of milk—frequently linked to orgasm; and her exorbitant texts read like a body expelling itself, an almost jubilant loss, a potlatch of signifiers, an excess of language that seems to defy the coherence and continuity and order of what we call meaning. Two examples: her treatment of such loci classici of literature, such cliché[d] metaphors of writing, as childbirth and the voice.

I have always taken pleasure in seeing a woman give birth…. Giving birth like one swims, playing against the resistance of the flesh, of the sea, the work of respiration in which the notion of "mastery" is annulled, body to body, the woman follows herself, joins herself, marries herself. She is there. Entirely. Mobilized, and it is her body that is concerned, the flesh of her flesh…. She is not absent, she is not feeling, she can take herself and give herself to herself…. It is not the "mother" that I would see. The child, it concerns her, not me. It was woman at the height of her flesh, her bliss, the force finally delivered, manifest…. She gives birth. With the force of a lioness. Of a plant. Of a cosmogony. Of a woman. ["La Venue à l'écriture"]

The passage articulates quite literally an expulsion, or the fantasy of an expulsion; in accouchement, the dictates of the body as other become dominant and bring forth what is seemingly proper—the child. But for Cixous, what is important is the "othering" (the "accoucheuse s'autre," others herself, she writes in "Le Rire de la Méduse"), wherein one body is felt in another body, one body makes possible the other body, and the woman's pulsion is present to her via the body. There is no fetishization of the child, no evidence of penis-envy in this passage; on the contrary, the expulsion of the child, instead of arresting the flow of language, is subsumed in that flow:

And on the imprints of the child, a strong gust of breath. A desire for text. Confusion! What is happening to her? A child! Some paper! Drunkenness! I am overflowing. My breasts are overflowing! Milk. Ink. Time to nurse. And me? I too am hungry. The milky taste of ink! ["La Venue à l'écriture"]

This passage stresses, again, ex-pulsion—of the child, of milk, of ink. In a very similar way, her texts are expulsions, that tend to subvert form, structure, and center; and time, which in more traditional literature is generally represented as a number of privileged moments, such as the birth of a child or the completion of a book, is destructured.

The voice, in classical and modernist literature, as opposed to post-modernist texts, such as Cixous', connotes the presence of a self that is entire and whole; in Cixous, the voice is expulsion, loss, dissemination:

Voice! it is also hurling oneself, this effusion from which nothing returns…. It/she [Elle can mean either] leaves. It/she loses. And it is thus that she writes, as one hurls her voice, forward, into the void. She moves off, she advances, she does not turn on her tracks to examine them. She does not look at herself. ["La jeune née"]

(The "she" is Cixous' mythical woman writer.) What the mouth expels is at once the voice and the representative of the pulsion, the "being-who-wants-to-be-born, a pulsion, something that wants at any cost to get out, to be exhaled, a music in my throat that wants to resonate, a need therefore carnal … a force which contracts the muscles of my belly and tenses my diaphragm as if I were going to give birth by my throat, or have an orgasm. And it's the same thing." The throat is frequently a vaginal tract, and the cry, the tearing of the hymenal veil: "Without it—my death—I would not have written anything. Not have torn the veil of my throat." Voice, veil, and throat articulate a fantasy of penis, hymen, and vagina, that clearly inscribes Derrida's fiction of the hymen, paper, and pen, for the hymen is torn (in Cixous) with every vocal utterance, and yet is forever intact and virginal, is ever to be torn again. Likewise, the orgasmic imagery that articulates writing inscribes the Derridean metaphor of dissemination, or semen (of which one equivalent in Cixous is milk) and sign being scattered in space, rather than inseminating. She rewrites Rimbaud's verses, "l'éternité. / C'est la mer melée / Au soleil," replacing mer, sea, by voix, voice, and soleil, sun, by lait, milk: "L'Eternité, c'est la voix melée avec le lait" ("Eternity, it is the voice mingled with milk"). Voix and lait inscribe at once voilé, the veil forever to be rent, and the voie lactée, the milky way (woman gives birth with the force "of a cosmogony"), the milky seed, or signs, forever swirling off into the night like the Van Gogh explosion of Starry Night. The voice, mingled with the milk, seed, and stars, is not whole and entire, it is disseminated into infinity, eternity, forever lost. And it is completely fragmented: "My text is written in white and black, in 'milk' and 'night'," she writes, echoing Mallarmé's metaphor of the alphabet of the stars.

The black sky, however, is also the black continent, the black body, the feminine body, the other body, impropre, of the unconscious. Cixous' imagery suggests that the milk-signs that are expulsed by the throat-voice-breast-vagina, are disseminated within an infinite body, thus problematizing the very concept of inside/outside, of space, and property, the propre/impropre, the me and the not-me. "World-wide my unconscious, world-wide my body. What happens in the exterior happens in the interior…. I enter and go out, I enter and go out, I am in my body and my body is in me …" What distinguishes Cixous' texts is that they articulate at once an outward movement that would inscribe the pulsions via what Abraham calls the symbols or messengers, and an inward movement, a deciphering of memory traces, which, however, can be accomplished only through ex-pulsions—I enter by going out; the text is therefore not "composed," it is not writing in any conventional sense of the term:

I don't "begin" by "writing": I don't write. Life becomes text through my body. I am already text. History, love, violence, time, work, desire, inscribe it [the text] in my body, I make my way to where the "fundamental language" can be heard, the body in which all languages of things, of acts and of beings are translated, in my own being, the entirety of the real worked into my flesh, captured by my nerves, by my senses, by the labor of all my cells, projected, analyzed, recomposed in a book. Vision: my chest like a tabernacle. Open. I enter inside myself with my eyes closed, and it [ça] is read. This reading is carried out here by the being-who-wants-to-be-born, a pulsion, something that wants at all costs to get out…. ["La Venue à l'écriture"]

Though this text uses some of the major motifs of surrealist literature, such as the voyant, or seer, looking inward at the world that loss has opened up, it nevertheless articulates an awareness of the textuality of the unconscious that is not generally found in surrealist literature—but does exist in Proust: "As for the interior book of unknown signs (of signs in relief, it would seem, that my attention, exploring my unconscious, went searching for, stumbled against and passed around, like a diver groping around), for the reading of which no one could help me with any rule, this reading consisted in a creative act, wherein no one could stand in our stead, nor even collaborate with us." And one page later, Proust writes: "This book, the most difficult of all to decipher, is also the only one of which the 'imprint' ["impression"] has been made in us by reality itself." Proust's texts, which describe so often that which is seen with the other eye (fantasy, illusion, projection), attempt, as do Cixous' texts, to transcribe the book of memory traces. Abraham observes that "fantasy and perception, as memory traces, form an indissoluble unity." The outward movement of projection, fantasy, ex-pulsion, and the inward movement of reading, of deciphering the traces, two movements that are one and inseparable, are articulated throughout Cixous' work. The text, that issues from the other texts, she calls a third body (the title of one of her novels): "for the third body to be written, the interior must enter and the exterior must open up. If you plug my ears, if you close off my body to the music exterior-interior, if you bar the song, then everything is silence …"

Cixous' unending attempts to transcribe the signs and rhythms of the unconscious necessarily deconstruct the propre of the novel, i.e. that which is particular to the novel. The plot, the story line, the fil du récit, narrative coherence, are generally effaced; instead of the fil, the little string of Ariadne, another umbilical cord that the solar hero unwinds and winds to return into the labyrinth and to return out of it, to return to darkness (the noeud) and to return to light (the dénouement), instead of the hierarchy propre/impropre, Cixous' texts are fragments, frequently without logical coherence, without the returns that so often constitute a structure in traditional fiction; fragments that are, as we have seen, expulsed, projected out, beyond the margins, and thus constantly decentralize the text. Narrative coherence, which in traditional literature assures the reader of the presence of a unified self, is lacking, primarily because of the power of the other, or others. Cixous, applying for a "writing license" (permis d'écriture) in La Venue à l'écriture, is informed by the "Super-uncle realist-capitalist": "You are full of doubles, one cannot count on you, there is some other in your same. Make us some homogenous Cixous." The identity signified by the proper noun, the propre signified by the noun "Cixous," is forever being subverted by the body-text: "Thus each text another body. But in each one the same vibration: for that of me which marks all my books recalls that it is my flesh that signs them, it is a rhythm."

Her discourse tends to undermine the sens propre (denotative meaning of language), in its common form as well: "'Common' nouns are also proper nouns which belittle your singularity by arranging it according to a kind." Her writing opens the linguistic, cultural parameters that channel desire: "Neither father nor mother nor brother nor man nor sister, but the being that love suggests at any moment…. Often you are my mother young man and I am often your daughter son, your mineral mother, and you my savage father, my animal brother." Signs become the signifiers of fantasies, desires: "The man who was my mother was walking next to me…. And if I had known her? I surely would not have understood her for her reasons were not human. The man in the womb of whom I was living was God herself…. My hand was trembling too, I adored him/her; even the earth trembled under our feet…. The man with the Breast smiled, his hand vibrating in my hand, I was terrified." Her anagrammatic style destabilizes the sign and begets a play of signification that is almost totally open-ended; the "character" Jeor, in Portrait du soleil, deconstructs to give Je (I), or (gold), jour (day, sun), jouir (to have an orgasm), orange (the color and the fruit), and oran-je (orange-I). Her characters are not characters but receivers of the messages of desire; the reappearing character, Dieubis, is at once god's double, and an address (bis frequently follows the number of an address, e.g. 30bis, to indicate that there is a second residence at that address). She elaborates the dream work itself to the extent that her texts are displacement and condensation generalized throughout; one finds such oneiric creatures as a serpenloup (serpent-wolf) and a serpenlion (serpent-lion).

"J'étais personne, I was nobody," writes the famous Joycean scholar, Cixous. But personne also means person, in Cixous, a multiple person, "toujours plus d'un," "always more than one," who is always other, who speaks in many voices, and, protean, lives in ever-changing form. Her narrative leaps with vertiginous rapidity from one person to another, thus approximating the je l'entu-ile of the discourse of the unconscious. "I became his you" (or thee; tu), she writes in Angst. The sender of the messages is also the receiver, but the relationship of sender to receiver is constantly shifting:

Before approaching dying no one can say how many are I.

I dream one sees oneself receiving the last letter, and one weeps. "Life will be short," I was discouraged. I wrote you: "Life will have been short. That does not depend anymore on me." I was sending us messages of death, and while reading them you wept.

Little remains of characterization, of a character as a self with a biography; she is constantly stripping the novel to that which is essential in discourse, namely the ever-shifting, polyphonic relationship of the subject to the other.

Her texts are always, like a psychoanalysis, quests, readings of dreams and fantasies, a working-out and a crossing-over: "Where are you leading us? To the other side." As in every analysis, there is the deity to be killed, the transcendent being, the fetish, that arises from death, from nothing:

And thus, ten years to make a step, the first after god the death, ten years to tear love away from the contemplation of god the crazy woman. Ten books in trying to finish with death. In the end, to succeed in writing Angst … to have said to it: "I am not your other. I no longer take you for love."

Cixous' texts, from the first publication, Prénom de Dieu (1967), to Angst, written approximately ten years later, mourn death ("to write is first of all always a way of not succeeding in accomplishing one's mourning of death"); they are an interminable analysis, deciphering the crypt, the names of the deity, the codes of the fetish. They constantly lead the "I" toward the mythical being called, at times, "la Vivante," "always present to the present," "she toward whom this text did not know it was leading me"; and at other times, "l'arrivante de toujours," "the desire that gives." Not locked up in the paradox of the gift that takes; nor the illusion of the "'first fusion in one'" ("fusion unième"). This mythical being also goes by the name of plus-je, Penthesilea, Cleopatra, Medusa, Dora.

It is certainly the place accorded the other—the multiple other—that at once defines the specificity of Cixous' texts, that to which they are opposed, and the tradition to which they adhere. In their attempt to approximate the discourse of the unconscious, to transcribe the unconscious pulsions via their messengers and symbols, her texts subvert the Hegelian model of the dialectic, refuse the position of the civilized man, who would never allow himself to fall into the horrible abyss of the other, and displace signification from conquest, form, and the spiritual, to the force of the writing and of the pulsions. In so doing, her texts affirm a literary tradition that has consistently questioned the ideology of the center, when it hasn't attempted to undermine it; I have mentioned most frequently Bataille, as one of the principal representatives of this other, often scatological, tradition of poets, voyants, who have thought, desired, and written the other (body); I might mention too, among those who figure in Cixous' works, Shakespeare, Blake, Kleist, Hoffman, Poe, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Joyce, Blanchot, whose texts are marked by the excess of the body, and by exorbitance forever subversive toward form. Though Cixous' discourse evolves from that of Freud, Lacan, Derrida, there is in her texts the attempt to refuse to defer, to refuse detours, to refuse the investments and counter-investments of writing, that distances her work from that of her mentors; her texts are impossible projects, powerful projections, and the most exorbitant gifts.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Le prénom de Dieu (short stories) 1967L'exil de James Joyce ou l'art du remplacement [The Exile of James Joyce or the Art of Replacement] (doctoral thesis) 1968Dedans [Inside] (novel) 1969 ∗Les commencements (novel) 1970 ∗Le troisième corps (novel) 1970Un vrai jardin (short fiction) 1971 ∗Neutre (novel) 1972La pupille (drama) 1972Tombe (novel) 1972Portrait du soleil (novel) 1974Prénoms de personne (essays) 1974La jeune née [The Newly Born Woman] [with Catherine Clément] (essays) 1975Un K. incompréhensible: Pierre Goldman (nonfiction) 1975Portrait de Dora [Portrait of Dora] (drama) 1975Révolutions pour plus d'un Faust (novel) 1975 "Le rire de la Méduse" ["The Laugh of the Medusa"] (essay) 1975; appeared in the journal L'arcSouffles (fiction) 1975LA (fiction) 1976Partie (drama) 1976Angst [Angst] (novel) 1977La venue à l'écriture [with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon] (essay) 1977Le nom d'Œdipe: Chant du corps interdit (libretto) 1978Préparatifs de noces au-delà de l'abîme (novel) 1978Ananké (fiction) 1979Vivre l'orange/To Live the Orange (fiction) 1979Illa (fiction) 1980With ou l'art de l'innocence (novel) 1981Limonade tout était si infini (fiction) 1982Le livre de Promethea (fiction) 1983L'histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk roi du Cambodge [The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia] (drama) 1984La prise de l'école de Madhubaï (drama) 1984La bataille d'Arcachon (tale) 1986Entre l'écriture (essays) 1986L'indiade ou l'inde de leurs rêves (drama) 1986Théâtre (dramas) 1986L'indiade ou l'inde de leurs rêves (nonfiction) 1988Manne: Aux Mandelstams aux Mandelas [Manna: For the Mandelstams for the Mandelas] (drama and fiction) 1988L'heure de Clarice Lispector [Reading with Clarice Lispector] (criticism) 1989La nuit miraculeuse [with Ariane Mnouchkine] (screenplay) 1989Akhmatova (drama) 1990Jours de l'an (nonfiction) 1990L'ange au secret (nonfiction) 1991 †"Coming to Writing," and Other Essays (essays) 1991On ne part pas, on ne revient pas (drama) 1991Readings: The Poetics of Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka, Kleist, Lispector and Tsvetayeva (criticism) 1991Déluge (nonfiction) 1992Beethoven à jamais, ou, l'existence de Dieu (nonfiction) 1993Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (lectures) 1993The Hélène Cixous Reader (collected works) 1994L'histoire, qu'on ne connaîtra jamais (drama) 1994

∗These works comprise a trilogy.

†This work was edited by Deborah Jenson.

Annette Kuhn (essay date Autumn 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Introduction to Hélène Cixous's 'Castration or Decapitation?'" in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 7, No. 1, Autumn, 1981, pp. 36-40.

[Kuhn is an English critic and educator who has written or edited numerous works on feminism, including The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality (1985) and The Feminist Companion Guide to Cinema (1990). In the essay below, she provides background information on Cixous and places her essay "Castration or Decapitation?" in the context of linguistic theory. Kuhn also notes that while Cixous simply attacks male-centered theories of language in this essay, her later works offer an alternative feminist view.]

Hélène Cixous is a writer, a professor, and the initiator of the women's studies program at the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes. She is the author of numerous texts—novels, plays, works of criticism, poetry, essays—and has become quite widely known in recent years among feminist theorists in the United States: however, very little of her writing is currently available in English translation. The most obvious reason for this is that it is very difficult for translation to do full justice to Cixous's writing, which is actually organized around a pervasive play with, and subversion of, linguistic signifiers. At the same time, since this practice in her writing is crucial to the interrogation of meaning that is at the heart of Cixous's work, it is important that it be attended to in translation and flattened out as little as possible by it. Moreover, increasing concern among English-speaking feminists with questions around language—the relation between a "patriarchal" order and language, and the possibility of questioning the one by working on the other—not only provides a climate for interest in the work of Cixous and other French feminist writers who engage head-on with these issues, but also renders all the more urgent the task of translating that work.

The French approach to these questions is distinctive in that it tends to be informed by theories concerning the place of "woman" in language and the question of a feminine relation to language that have had relatively little currency within Anglophone feminist thought. These theories are founded in Jacques Lacan's variant of post-Freudian psychoanalysis, which draws on some of the insights of structural linguistics to advance a model of human subjectivity as organized by unconscious relations constituted both developmentally and structurally in relation to language. According to the Lacanian model, the human subject is not only a speaking subject with an Unconscious, but also a masculine or feminine subject in relation to the Oedipus complex. Sexual difference is seen as structured by the subject's relation to the phallus, the signifier which stands in for the play of absence and presence that constitutes language. Because the oedipal moment inaugurates sexual difference in relation to the phallus as signifier, men and women enter language differently, and Lacan's argument is that the female entry into language is organized by lack, or negativity.

Because of the importance of Lacanian thought in the intellectual context in which they operate, feminist theorists in France have felt very keenly the need to engage directly with its arguments about sexual difference: many of their critiques of Lacanian theory in fact started out as criticisms from within. Feminist psychoanalysts (Luce Irigaray, for one) have been highly skeptical of the attribution of a negative value to woman's relation to language and of the sexism implicit in the elevation of the phallus to the place of Transcendental Signifier.

This is the background against which we have to understand the general preoccupation of French feminists with phallocentrism, and also their specific critique of the privileged place accorded the phallus in psychoanalytic accounts of language and sexual difference. In line with this critique, Hélène Cixous in "Castration or Decapitation?" aims a blow at "phallologocentric" culture where it hurts the most, and attacks it for marking woman as "other," as difference and negativity. She says no to the fathers, cheekily reminding them of the very thing they have most to fear—the threat of castration posed by the female body. As she says in "The Laugh of the Medusa": "Let the priests tremble, we're going to show them our sexts! Too bad for them if they fall apart on discovering that women aren't men, or that the mother doesn't have one." Here Cixous is suggesting that certain aspects of feminist/feminine practice may constitute a challenge to phallologocentrism. Her specific concern is with the "feminine" approach to writing (or writing/reading) that is implied by the neologism "sexts": she wants to write, and to write about, a "writing that inscribes femininity."

When "Castration or Decapitation?" first appeared in 1976, the author's primary concern was to open up the question of the "repression of the feminine" in culture, and at the same time to challenge that repression by provocatively questioning the structures of masculinist language and thought—its dualisms, its hierarchical orderings, and so on. To these structures, the feminine comes as "other," a riddle that is finally insoluble within the terms of a masculine (libidinal) economy. Freud's unanswered question "What do women want?" articulates the puzzle that the feminine poses for a patriarchal order. For Cixous, female sexual pleasure (jouissance) constitutes a potential disturbance to that order, and a "womantext"—a text that inscribes this jouissance—is a return of the repressed feminine that with its energetic, joyful, and transgressive "flying in language and making it fly" dislocates the repressive structures of phallologocentrism. And Cixous's own work offers an écriture—a practice of writing—that aims to do this by posing plurality against unity; multitudes of meanings against single, fixed meanings; diffuseness against instrumentality; openness against closure.

As the same time, however, despite its intent to question phallocentric discourse by means of a writing that subverts it, "Castration or Decapitation?" like other writings by Cixous of the same period, perhaps still constitutes a yearning toward, rather than a grasping of, an alternative practice: "There has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity." Her more recent writings seem to pose something of a break in this respect. The vocality, tactility, resonance, and exhilaration to be found in "Castration or Decapitation?" are still there, but because the direct challenge to phallocentrism is no longer an explicit focus, these qualities structure the texts in a more thoroughgoing manner; meanings and readings are denser, more complex, more focused.

Vivre l'orange, for example, echoes with voices and resonates with textures. Its central image of the orange that the writer/reader ("I") reaches toward and grasps condenses and generates an almost infinite number of personal and cultural associations. The orange's juiciness, sensuousness, texture, and brightness are present in the writing itself, which is as tactile as the fruit being held and weighed in the hand. The sound association with Oran, the writer's birthplace, implies a return to sources, but the shape of the orange, the O, tells us that the route will not be a linear one. The shape also suggests the roundness of femininity, the shape and weight of a breast, a full and positive sign of sexual difference to replace the Lacanian Lack:

From far away, from outside of my history, a voice came to collect the last tear. To save the orange. She put the word in my ear. And it was nearly the nymph of the orange that awakened in my breast and surged forth streaming from the heart's basin. Certain voices have this power. I had always been sure of it. She put the orange back into the deserted hands of my writing, and with her orange-colored accents she rubbed the eyes of my writing which were arid and covered with white films. And it was a childhood that came running back to pick up the live orange and immediately celebrate it. For our childhoods have the natural science of the orange. There was originally an intimacy between the orange and the little girl, almost a kinship, the exchange of essential confidences. The orange is ever young. The influx of orange propagated itself to the ends of my bodies. The orange is the nearest star. With all of my life I thought it, with all of my thought I went toward it, I had the peace in my hands. I saw that the world that held the answer to the questions of my being was gold-red, a globe of light present here and tomorrow, red day descended from green night.

I asked: "What have I in common with women?" From Brazil a voice came to return the lost orange to me. [Kuhn explains in a footnote that the "voice from Brazil is that of Clarice Lispector, a contemporary Brazilian writer, author of Agua Viva."] "The need to go to the sources. The easiness of forgetting the source. The possibility of being saved by a humid voice that has gone to the sources. The need to go further into the birthvoice."

And to all of the women whose voices are like hands that come to meet our souls when we are searching for the secret, we have needed, vitally, to leave to search for what is most secret in our being, I dedicate the gift of the orange. And to all of the women whose hands are like voices that go to meet the things in the dark, and that hold words out in the direction of things like infinitely attentive fingers, that don't catch, that attract and let come, I dedicate the orange's existence, as it has been given to me by a woman, according to the entire and infinite bringing-together of the thing, including all that is kin of the air and the earth, including all of the sense relations that every orange keeps alive and circulates, with life, death, women, forms, volumes, movement, matter, the ways of metamorphoses, the invisible links between fruits and bodies, the destiny of perfumes, the theory of catastrophes, all of the thoughts that a woman can nourish, starting out from a given orange; including all of its names, the silent name, laid upon my almost white leaf, the name as proper to it as god's name to god; its family name; and its maiden name; and the singular name, unique, detached from the dark-green air in which the voice of Clarice went to gather an orange among all of the oranges to lay it young and sound on the toile of a text prepared for it: she called this one "Laranja."

It was almost a young girl. It was an orange regained. Through the fine skin of the word, I sensed that it was a blood-orange. By a fine vibration in the toile, I sensed that Clarice closed her eyes to touch the orange better, to hold it more lightly, let it weigh more freely upon her text, she noted eyes closed to hear more internally the secret song of the orange. Every orange is original. And to all of the women for whom the need of fruit reflexion is a task of life, I dedicate the juice-filled fruits of meditation. To all women then. My ears of meditation.

And so on: meanings radiate, multiply, permeate the text, and finally go beyond it. If "Castration or Decapitation?" is readable as saying no to the fathers, then the next move must be a positive approach to the mothers, a "need to go to the sources and enjoy together."

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Crowler, Diane Griffin. "Amazons and Mothers? Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous and Theories of Women's Writing." Contemporary Literature 24, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 117-44.

Compares Cixous's feminist theories with Monique Wittig's, stating that "these two conceptions of how to write women's experience reveal a profound division which extends far beyond the literary realm."

Klobucka, Anna. "Hélène Cixous and the Hour of Clarice Lispector." Sub-Stance, No. 73 (1994): 41-62.

Discusses the relationship between Cixous's works and those of Brazilian novelist and short story writer Clarice Lispector.

Kogan, Vivian. "'I Want Vulva!' Cixous and the Poetics of the Body." L'esprit createur XXV, No. 2 (Summer 1985): 73-85.

Examines the role of the body in Cixous's works, concluding "what Cixous desires … is to reflect in her writing the specific manner in which the libidinal economy functions, i.e., the way in which the sexual life, regulated by energy, is marked physically by the female subject, and the way it affects her relations to her body and to the world."

Running-Johnson, Cynthia. "The Medusa's Tale: Feminine Writing and 'La Genet.'" Romanic Review LXXX, No. 3 (May 1989): 483-95.

Notes similarities between Cixous's La jeune née and the works of French novelist, poet, and playwright Jean Genet.

Review of The Exile of James Joyce, by Hélène Cixous. The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3504 (24 April 1969): 430.

Mixed review of The Exile of James Joyce in which the critic states "usually the speculations about the influence of family, friends, church, social and political environment are responsible, plausible, and well-documented."

Tsuchiya, Akiko. "Theorizing the Feminine: Esther Tusquet's El mismo mar de todos los veranos and Hélène Cixous's écriture féminine." Revista de estudios hispanicos XXVI, No. 2 (May 1992): 183-99.

Applies Cixous's theories to Esther Tusquet's novel El mismo mar de todos los veranos. Tsuchiya states that she presents "a reading of El mismo mar as a theoretically self-conscious and self-critical exploration of the problematics of creating an écriture féminine."


Makward, Christine. "Interview with Helene Cixous." Sub-Stance, No. 13 (1976): 19-37.

Interview in which Cixous discusses such topics as feminist writing, her writing style, and the role of the body in literature and criticism.

Hélène Cixous with Verena Andermatt Conley (interview date January 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An interview in Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 129-61.

[Conley is a Swiss-born critic and educator. In the interview below, which was conducted in January 1982, Cixous discusses such topics as her concept of écriture féminine (or feminine writing), the role of women in society, the use of myths and dreams in her works, and her development as a writer.]

[Cixous]: The preliminary question is that of a "feminine writing," itself a dangerous and stylish expression full of traps, which leads to all kinds of confusions. True, it is simple to say "feminine writing." The use of the word "feminine"—I believe I have discussed it at length elsewhere—is one of the curses of our times. First of all, words like "masculine" and "feminine" that circulate everywhere and that are completely distorted by everyday usage,—words which refer, of course, to a classical vision of sexual opposition between men and women—are our burden, that is what burdens us. As I often said, my work in fact aims at getting rid of words like "feminine" and "masculine," "femininity" and "masculinity," even "man" and "woman," which designate that which cannot be classified inside of a signifier except by force and violence and which goes beyond it in any case. So it is true that when one says "feminine writing," one could almost think in terms of graphology. One could say, it is the writing of an elegant woman, she is this or that. That is obviously not what is at stake. Instead of saying feminine writing or masculine writing, I ended up by saying a writing said to be feminine or masculine, in order to mark the distance. In my seminar, rather than taking this elementary precaution, I speak of a decipherable libidinal femininity which can be read in a writing produced by a male or a female. The qualifier masculine or feminine which I use for better or for worse comes from the Freudian territory.

[Conley]: What do you mean by "libidinal"?

Something extremely precise which has been defined by Freud in his numerous writings on libido. It is something which can be defined from the body, as the movement of a pulsion toward an object, and which is part of the discoveries that may be defined as the Freudian discoveries par excellence. It allows us to know what in other times had been analyzed as the treaty of passions. This is what I refer to, and I believe that the word "economy" is important. It is the regime of that which in the past used to be called the effect of desire, of love. It is the love life in fact, or the sexual life, which is regulated by energy marked psychically by the subject, which is lived consciously, and which can be described as economic metaphors with moments of investment in passion, love, disgust, or anything else, moments of disinvestments from subject to object. These are libidinal investments, which can be treated and spoken about in morals or philosophy as well. For example, the possibility of giving, of generosity, or as one says in common terms, of the seven deadly sins, of avarice, which is not to give, to retain. All these are effects or denominations of things that are entirely to be thought of in the category of libidinal economies.

Then, we need qualifiers to clarify the types of regimes, and the ones we use are, once again, in spite of everything, "feminine" and "masculine." Why? True, it is a question here of our whole history, of our whole culture; true, it would be nice if one could use, instead of masculine and feminine, color adjectives, for example. Like blue and green and black; I said that in a text. True, one could also displace across political economy and say, for example, capitalist or I do not know what else. One could take notions that have been disengaged by the socioethnologists who talk about potlatch, like Mauss. You see, these are linguistic instruments, words that do not take into account the reality of exchange. Still, why does one say masculine and feminine? And what does it signify? Because the first exchanges, the primary exchanges—I do not say originary, because obviously there is no origin—are distinguished in our first milieu, the familial milieu, for example. They take place among people of different sexes, but what we also know with Freud, since Freud, though it was known before him and can be read in literary texts, is that human beings who can be distinguished anatomically in an obvious way—which leads to I.D. cards and social roles—are not, at the level of sexual economies, as different as that. All human beings are originally bisexual; that is why in my theoretical childhood I have been led to use this word. We know that the child is not as categorically determined as that. When children grow up, they learn to identify with the adult model of man or woman. Yet these identificatory determinations are belated, and there is a whole period which Freud describes when there is a bisexual potential. This does not mean homosexual with the tendency one may think. Just as there is always, in every human being, a complex relationship between death drives and life drives, there is a complex relationship between different libidinal economies which would be passive and active, constantly binding and unbinding themselves, exchanging, spending, and retaining.

I can use the analytic vocabulary, since I do not have to enclose myself in its system: oral, anal, genital. A full, total, accomplished individual goes through all the stages and arrives at the genital stage that assembles everything. As for the intermediary stages, one knows, for example with Freud, that the anal stage corresponds to an anal economy, which is an avaricious economy of retention, of hard exchange. There are people in whom there is a dominance, an insistence. They stop at a certain stage, at the oral stage, for example, and have a censoring relationship to others. The ideal harmony, reached by few, would be genital, assembling everything and being capable of generosity, of spending. That is what I mean when I speak of écriture féminine, that is what I talk about. Of course, it is not exactly me; it is the inscription of something that carries in everyday language the determination of the provisional name of femininity, and which refers precisely to something that I would like to define in the way of an economy, of production, of bodily effects of which one can see a great number of traits.

For example, last year in my seminar we worked on texts by Lispector. We worked on the fact that her texts are very humid texts, that in them it is always a question of something humid. I would even say that one of her major texts, Agua Viva, is like water. Can one write water, can one read water? How can one do it? That is precisely the question of this text. One can do it only by throwing oneself into the water, by becoming one with the water. To show the difference, I also had recourse to masculine texts that present traits of masculine economy and that insist in the most remarkable way on drying up. I say purposely "drying up," which is done by something wet that dries. I do not say something absolutely dry. I am not going to oppose the desert and the sea, not at all. But I want to work on the level of an economic differential, on that, for example, which is of the domain of the humid. We also know that the humid is vital, that absolute dryness prevents one from living. I had taken a text, and that is where we will have to take a number of precautions. I had chosen the most extraordinary text and the easiest to read, Blanchot's text in general and this one in particular. It is a text which he had produced in L'Ecriture du désastre, the writing of disaster, a text that goes toward a drying up. The writer will never cry again. He has shed all the tears. There is secretion, etc., and then there is an episode, there is an event, a symbolic and decisive event, which decides the masculine orientation, which determines that this child; who at first is neutral (we do not know whether it is masculine or feminine) orients itself toward the decision of belonging to the masculine gender. One can analyze this decision in other texts by Blanchot. I have done it at length elsewhere.

When I read this text to you, I did not want to tell you at first who wrote it. Because if I do tell you, for example, that it is by Maurice Blanchot, I am saying that it is a text written by a man and you are sent back to the lure, to the screen. You are sent back to the fact that it is a man who wrote a masculine text. My own position is to insist always on the fact that libidinal femininity is not the propre of women and that libidinal masculinity is not the propre of men. What is most important for me, what allows me to continue to live and not to despair, is precisely the conviction that it does not depend on the anatomical sex, not on the role of man and of woman, but that it depends in fact on life's chance, which is everybody's responsibility. For example, this year in my seminar we work on a double corpus, on Clarice Lispector and on Kleist. In reality, the texts are interchangeable because Kleist is absolutely exceptional. Kleist produces a work that functions in a more feminine than masculine way. That means he is capable of spending at all levels, of displacing the rhythms, for example, of the living, of the relationship between life and death, of all that which could be qualified more easily as feminine than masculine. So I say, taking all my precautions, that in fact the ideal for me would be to use "proper" names instead of adjectives, feminine and masculine: to speak of a Kleistian economy would be much better. When I am obligated to theorize, when one asks me to theorize in order to clarify my ideas, I find myself back in the trap of words.

Of course, there is a certain danger for us in taking up words which are so strongly marked. That is why, in my seminar, I do not use them. But publicly, I must constantly have recourse to them, because we are in history, we live in history, we are in a historical, political situation which we must take into account. Literature does not float like a planet in air. It is part of "truth" even if I consider that its part is precisely to precede, to anticipate ordinary reality, to distance itself from it, to go faster than it. We must take into account the fact that we are caught in daily reality in the stories of men and women, in the stories of a role. That is why I come back to the question of the terms masculine and feminine. Why these words? Why do they stay with us? Why do we not reject them? Because in spite of everything and for historical reasons, the economy said to be feminine—which would be characterized by features, by traits, that are more adventurous, more on the side of spending, riskier, on the side of the body—is more livable in women than in men. Why? Because it is an economy which is socially dangerous in our times. That is what we saw already with Kleist. You live, you believe, you give life to values that are apparently moral values, but in fact these moral values do not exist without precisely coming forth from a primary locus which is in any case corporeal. If, for example, like Kleist, you believe in the possibility of a love, a real love, not one based on a power struggle, on a daily war, on the enslavement of one by the other, society is going to reject you. If you are a man, the rejection is almost immediate. Society does not give you any time. You have just lived through an experience, and society tells you that if you believe that, you should get lost; there is no place for you. What you are doing is absolutely prohibited, and you are sent into madness and death. Women do have another chance. They can indulge in this type of life because by definition and for culturally negative reasons they are not called upon, they are not obligated, to participate in the big social fête—which is phallocentric—since they are often given places in the shadow, places of retreat, where they are in fact parked. It will be more easily accepted that a woman does not battle, does not want power. A man will not be forgiven.

Yes, but do women not want to get out of that negative historical position?

Something which is absolutely necessary. What I am saying is always on two levels. One level would be, if you like, that of libidinal truth. It is cut mercilessly by historical reality. I also say that for negative reasons, women have positive reasons to save something through generosity which is mortal for men. Because man is projected on a scene where he has to be a warrior among warriors. He is assigned to the scene of castration. He must defend his phallus; if not, it is death. There you are. Women are not called upon the scene of castration, which in a way is not good for them, since they are repressed. Let us suppose that in our feminist period, women manage, for example, to have equal chances; that is precisely where things start to become interesting and complicated. With equal chances, you are back in the old scenes. In the old scenes there were power struggles, and so what does one do? That is our problem. That is the problem of all women who, for example, cross the bar of absolute repression behind which women are parked and who are, in fact, on the side of men. What do they do? Either they are killed right away, or they effectively resist castration. They find themselves in the scenes where castration makes the law with the usual phallic stakes. But what about us? What we like, what we want, what men may also want but have been taught a long time ago to renounce—are we going to keep that? That is when one begins to live dramas. Are we going to be the equals of men, are we going to be as phallic as they are? Or do we want to save something else, something more positive, more archaic, much more on the side of jouissance, of pleasure, less socializable? If so, how and at what price? That is our daily question.

You see, somebody like Kleist was on the one hand called upon to be a man, since he was in the military. He was in the normal, phallic space reserved for men. At the same time, he cannot renounce something entirely different, which he himself calls paradise. And he wonders: does this paradise have a chance in our world, which is purgatory or hell? He attempted to give this idea of paradise a chance, and he lost. But obviously, this idea of paradise is a very good metaphor, since the paradise of Eve is that which is defined by an immediate relation women have to jouissance and another type of knowledge. Kleist believes in it, but if there is prohibition, it is because there is law and the masculine world, which permanently deals with repressing this paradise that is always there and always ready to come back again.

One of women's demands is nevertheless to enter society.

That is our problem. We can no longer bear the situation of repression, of desocialization, of desymbolization, of inferiority, but we lose both ways. Is it possible to win? Yes, of course. But what a struggle. It is true that if we enter society to become men, we have lost everything. In this case, we leave the space of repression to win another repression, which will please men who are also wasting their lives. Can one win? Only on condition that upon entering society one does not identify with men but that one works on other possibilities of living, on other modes of life, on other relationships to the other, other relationships to power, etc., in such a way that one also brings about transformations in oneself, in others, and in men. That is a long project.

And very difficult, the more so as women do not have the means of power to make transformations in a society which is more open to those who are in power.

True. In any event, we can work only on compromise, a word that is always enunciated in the negative mode, but that has to be displaced. I do not believe in sexual opposition nor in a sexuality that would be strictly feminine or strictly masculine, since there are always traces of originary bisexuality. And then, there is exchange. As soon as you simply touch the other, you alter the other and you are altered by the other, an alteration that may be positive or negative. It is negative if there is compromise, if you are incorporated by the other, etc. Yet there are modalities of exchange that are respectful modalities, where you let yourself be sufficiently altered to feel the other of the other—not too much, because then you destroy yourself.

Are you saying that one must be between the two? Is that why you come back to the position of compromise?

No, I am not between. Be very careful. That is precisely where I would be most careful. The between, the entre, is the neither-one-nor-the-other. I am not of the neither-one-nor-the-other. I am rather on the side of with, in spite of all the difficulties and confusions this may bring about. It is hard to keep an equilibrium which, to use the word I use all the time, must be graceful. It has to be moving, has to be in movement. As soon as you stop, that is it. One must constantly work to keep this equilibrium in movement. I do not know whether what I say is clear enough.

What then would be the strategic "goal" of a feminine writing?

That is where I would come back to the fact that the word "feminine"—which I put between 150 quotation marks to prevent it from being used in the mode of a "feminine woman," as in fashion magazines—qualifies nevertheless a certain type of economy, the traits of which I analyze for myself as positive traits. I consider that every person should have an interest, individually and politically, not in fighting them but on the contrary in developing them. When I work on this question, I always do so from a literary corpus, because it is easier, let us say. You spoke to me, for example, of separation and reparation. I think that, if you like, a feminine libidinal economy is an economy which has a more supple relation to property, which can stand separation and detachment, which signifies that it can also stand freedom—for instance, the other's freedom. So to take a ridiculous example, the conjugal situation is that of appropriation; it is an initiation of appropriation: I am no longer myself, I belong to you, etc. As soon as there is appropriation in a rigid mode, you may be sure that there is going to be incorporation. It destroys the possibility of being other. It is the arrest of freedom of the other, and that is enormous. A feminine libidinal economy, one that tolerates the movements of the other, is very rare: one that tolerates the comings and goings, the movements, the écart [space, interval, gap]. So how is this going to work in a literary text? You will have literary texts that tolerate all kinds of freedom—unlike the more classical texts—which are not texts that delimit themselves, are not texts of territory with neat borders, with chapters, with beginnings, endings, etc., and which will be a little disquieting because you do not feel the arrest, the edge [the arrêt or the arête].

What is the scope of this feminine writing?

To touch upon feminine writing frees, liberates language, word usage. Of course, one cannot imagine a political liberation without a linguistic liberation; that is all very banal. It is evident, everyone knows it. It is not by chance that all the regional movements grab on to their language. It is in order to escape, if you would like, the language of the father. It is in order to take something from a language which would be less authoritarian. It is a lot of work.

When you talk about the other, you draw in an ethical dimension. What is the relationship you see between an ethical and a political dimension, between a political dimension and respect for the other?

It is the same thing, though it depends on what one means by political, in the sense of management, it becomes a technical question which in any event refers back to a political question. Otherwise, for me, there is only ethics, nothing else.

What about political in the sense of a community, of a polis, or city with its own police force? When you talk about "women," even between quotation marks, you still refer to a very specific group with its demands and ideas of community. There are new exclusions, new masters.

The problem goes beyond that of women. It is the problem of any community, any society, because there have been many ideal societies. One collides right away with a contradiction that is not mastery. I will take it at a banal level.

When we founded Paris VIII, at the time of '68, we founded it with the idea that there would be no more professors, no more masters—something that never did materialize, because if one is not the master, the other is, of course. We never did get out of the Hegelian system. What one can do is displace it as much as possible. One has to fight it; one can diminish the degree of mastery, yet without completely eliminating it. There always must be a tiny bit of phallus, so that things continue one way or the other. I believe that it is humanly impossible to have an absolute economy without a minimum of mastery. The problem is that one is always with the regime of the maximum and not that of the minimum. But we know that organized society has done violence to everybody, that it enslaves everybody. This is not to be eliminated with complete freedom which, in my opinion, ends up by being too vague and is found only in spiritual evasion.

In the same context, you use an admirable chiasm: "poetically political, politically poetic."

I defend myself by saying that.

I read a couple of days ago, in a book by a Marxist critic, that "political" and "poetic" are irreconcilable.

People who are into politics cannot not say such things. People who are poets, to use a general term, but who at the same time have a political concern are obligated to say the opposite. For the latter, the poetic must have a political value: of course, it must not be an easy solution. It is not sufficient to write to be poetic. It is true, though, that you have works that think themselves and write themselves poetically without forgetting the political questions. For example, Clarice Lispector constantly raises the question of politics while saying, I am not a militant politician. But it is a question that is always there, from which I determine myself. There are others: Kleist does nothing but that. All his texts are completely historical. He constantly asks questions that are political, that are treated politically. I try to do the same. I would lie if I said that I am a political woman, not at all. In fact, I have to assemble the two words, political and poetic. Not to lie to you, I must confess that I put the accent on poetic. I do it so that the political does not repress, because the political is something cruel and hard and so rigorously real that sometimes I feel like consoling myself by crying and shedding poetic tears. That is why I wrote the text called With ou l'art de l'innocence. I think that I am constantly guilty, for example, of having the privilege of being able to console myself poetically. Besides, I never console myself; as soon as I console myself, I punish myself. I think that is the paradox and the torment of people who have a calling to write that is stronger than anything else, and who know and do not forget—because most people do forget—that as soon as one writes, one betrays someone or something.

That is what Kafka thought, when he asked himself whether he had the right to write or to marry. He made those two columns with additions, subtractions, constantly realizing that he could not choose but that he had to choose and that he could not not choose. And finally, the choice was made. He did not do it himself, and it was always made in the direction of writing. It was not a happy choice. Finally, writing chose him until he died. He paid, of course, with death. It is true that when somebody writes, somebody dies. It may be you. When you write, it may be only you. Kafka killed others, and then at a later moment he was the one who died. He could no longer contribute to killing his fiancée. Of course, there is an easy solution which at the same time is the most difficult in the world: that is, that you die rather than the other. You see, this means that there is only death. Obviously, that is what I cannot admit. True, it is a mixture of death and life, but I think that one should die for something, in order for something to live or for something that will give life to somebody else.

You always privilege life in your texts.

Yes. Yes, that is the dominant. I always come back to it. Whatever may happen, "one cannot not," even in the very gesture of writing, which by definition is a gesture of retreat. It is a gesture that you make only by retiring, by enclosing yourself, by acting as if you were alone in the world, at least for a while. And what is happening during that time? You write and make an extremely bizarre and relatively autoerotic gesture while the others are behind closed doors and wait until you are done. Nothing, of course, prohibits them from writing also. You see, each person is in his or her corner. I say this laughingly. On the other hand, what I can also say from experience is that writing is—and one cannot deny this—a consolation, happiness in unhappiness. And if unhappiness is near you, real unhappiness is always much stronger than happiness in unhappiness; if someone near you truly suffers, if someone is sick or if there is a war, you do not write. And then you see the limits of writing, because technically it is always situated and written in the present. It is really atemporal. That is why I say it always anticipates other times. When there is no tomorrow, when today is put to fire and the sword, let me say that then, today is stronger than ever. That is when you say that truly unlivable things, the concentration camps, for example, do not have a writing. Another evidence is of course that there is a part of the world that cannot write and that will always only write in silence.

Like the Third World or, in our context, the Third World women.

I talked about that in Vivre I'orange, which I wrote at the time of the events in Iran. Of course, I went into the streets, I manifested. I did what I could, not being in Iran but in my own skin. These are questions that cannot be solved. These are questions one must ask oneself, and that one must sometimes transform into a dagger, to inflict a good blow on oneself in order not to forget that others suffer. Now, there are also questions of identification. For example, do I identify with Iranian women for reasons of the unconscious? Yes. For reasons of the Orient? Yes. All this traverses my own Arab childhood, if you like. But am I going to identify with Japanese women? No. Of course, I could say that if there were a massacre of Japanese women, I would be in solidarity with them all the time, in the same way that now, in France, one is in solidarity with the Polish "question." Is it true? It is a question. It is true for many and false for many others. I can only do the maximum from where I am by being the most severe judge of my own gestures and my own spending: did I do enough of what I can do from where I am?

So back to the question of the Third World women. I think that I am only a writer, and when I say that, I think that other women are completely militant, some women of the MLF, for example. They struggle for women, for their lives. I do not compare myself with them; I consider that they advance the woman's cause in a much more active and more immediate way than I do. So why, since I think that, do I not do it? I do not do it because it is true that I was born, so to speak, in the skin of writing, and I have writing in the skin. And to live, I need to do what I am doing. So, do I have the right to do it? That is the question. I give myself the right but maybe for the wrong reasons. My need is totally unjustifiable, totally egotistical. I justify myself by saying that there are people who have a calling to write that is strong enough and that our culture is of a type that allows me, for example, to produce what I consider to be a feminine textual breakthrough. I justify myself, but I may be wrong, since I am the one who says it; others may say that this is completely wrong, and I will have committed an enormous historical error.

That is true, but finally I believe in what I do; otherwise, I would not do it. If I were persuaded that what I do is useless, I would not do it. I believe that it is useful, and I think that it can be useful only on the condition that there be a women's movement. If there were no women's movement, I would be prohibited.

Do you think that the women's movement is caught in a class struggle?

That is a big question. It is a question which is determined historically. First, in France, no one ignores class struggle. And then, there is always the question of solidarity. But the women's movement in France is not feminist only in the sense of asking for equal rights. When I say that, everybody screams, What do you mean, "only equal rights"? Of course one must demand them. Equalities are needed. But the women's movement does something that is not taken into account by class struggle; that is, it represses or even squashes misogyny. Class struggle reinforces misogyny. It concentrates on social measures and makes fun of women's words, precisely with social measures. And that is perfectly ridiculous; women know it well.

When one speaks of the "other," does one necessarily refer to a feminine other?

For reasons of political, historical, and cultural urgency, I am obligated to make distinctions. I would say, for example, if I took my own "little" life, on the level of the anecdote, I would not know whom to designate as my other, my others. I could say that my first others are people of my family. Only if I move now into another, larger sphere, then I produce my other out of a sense of urgency. This other is imposed on me, is dictated in an absolute way to me, by history, by the state of history. Today it is necessarily women, the question of women, the woman. So I have to say, because there is a big distance, that this is not where I started my existence. I would say that it is even for this very reason that the word "other" is an interesting word.

In reality, I impregnate it with love. For me, the other is the other to love. Yet what I may have lived in my existence was that the other had to be hated, feared, that he was the stranger, the foreigner, everything that is bad. I situate the other in what classically or biblically one could have called my neighbor. It is complicated to say this kind of thing. And then you have the whole range of others. For example, I have been working on a text by Lispector that has to do with a bandit, a criminal who has killed many people, a guy one has to get rid of. Little by little, there is an imaginary displacement into the imagination of the other. All of a sudden the bandit emerges, as if there were a kind of invisible line that speaks from one body to another as other, yet as his own other, my other, as a completely foreign other but one whom, precisely, I respect as this other there. That, for me, is absolutely vital, it is for me the supreme value. To respect strangeness, otherness, does not mean that I relegate him to incomprehensibility; on the contrary, I seek to catch the most of what is going to remain preciously incomprehensible for me and that I will in any case never understand, but that I like, that I can admit, that I can tolerate, because really there is always a mystery of the other. In general, when there is a mystery, one feels hostility. One wants to destroy, one wants to oppose it. That is where I think there is an enigmatic kernel of the other that must be absolutely preserved.

In that case, the other is not sexually determined. It could be any "other."

It is always anybody.

But there has been so much talk about the Other-as-woman, often spelled with a capital O.

When one speaks about the Other-as-woman, what does one mean? I am asking you the question.

Besides, I wonder—when one speaks about the Other-as-woman, one insists on the fact that the other may be any other. What the classical, ordinary, heterosexual woman cannot do is to think of the other woman, for the good reason that she is not the object of her interest, since the object of her interest is man. I do not like the notion "fellow creature," which comes back to the same, which is in any case the elimination of the other and death. As I said, I do not believe in the opposition between men and women. I only believe that one finds a feminine economy in some women, like Eve. You see, God is the name of the law, the name of punishment, of the masculine figure who cannot let himself act in a way that would make people stop at a stage of jouissance, of pleasure, simply because otherwise there would be no society, no capitalism, no power struggle; there would not be that which has become our civilization; all this is completely banal. So now, when you take another example, everybody knows it, I mean everybody who has a sense of language obscurely knows it and exploits it in different ways. And everyone obviously does not say what I say. But everyone knows that the law is only the name of the law. So let us take for example Kafka's text, "Before the Law," about which I already spoke in La Jeune Née, because it was exemplary for me; I read it in the same mode. You know the story of the peasant who comes from the countryside, from paradise, naively telling himself, I want to go in. Now, that is not the nature of man in general. And, of course, he is told: "No." And you know how he dies, you know the story. What interests me is the manner in which Kafka wrote it. He starts with a title, "Before the Law." Then he starts the first sentence, "Before the law, there is a keeper, the keeper of the door." The man from the country arrives, and you go on, you read everything. Afterward, you ask questions, all the questions that Kafka asked himself in The Trial, and you can do, if you like, the interminable exegesis of the admirable story. Except, in fact, what did happen? It so happened that there was the first sentence, which starts with "Before the law," and that you, since you are a good, obedient student, do not ask questions; that is to say, you were told "before the law," so all right, you are also before the law and you are there with the country man, asking yourself: May I go in? And what is the law? etc. When the first sentence was already the one that implicated you in the world of law, which is nothing but the utterance of the words "before the law," and right away you start to think that there also is a "behind the law." Simply because it is written, and that is the force of the "it is written." Law is nothing but that, it is empty. It is nothing.

What about separation in relation to a word wound?

I say in a way that is, as a question of extreme violence, banal and not banal—and when I say "I," it is greater than the self—that most women feel this violence of the word, of speech, the violence of verbalization, since speech in effect separates, interrupts something of the lived immediacy. This is normal, necessary, and in certain ways good; yet in others, it is not. It all goes back to history and to the story of the apple. When the name of the apple begins to thicken and replace the apple, we all know that moment, the linguists as well as the psychoanalysts. In women's daily life, this is a big question. The ideal, or the dream, would be to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates. Could one imagine a language sufficiently transparent, sufficiently supple, intense, faithful so that there would be reparation and not only separation? I am attempting to write in that direction. I try to write on the side of a language as musical as possible.

A language that sings, words that are sung, traverse the body. What would be the relationship between a musical language and the body?

There are various levels of relationship between body and language. I think that many people speak a language that has no rapport with the body. Instead of letting emerge from their body something that is carried by voice, by rhythm, and that would be truly inspired, they are before language as before an electric panel. They choose the hypercoded, where nothing traverses. But I think, and everybody knows, that there are other possibilities of language, that are precisely languages. That is why I always privilege the ear over the eye. I am always trying to write with my eyes closed. What is going to write itself comes from long before me, me [moi] being nothing but the bodily medium which formalizes and transcribes that which is dictated to me, that which expresses itself, that which vibrates in almost musical fashion in me and which I annotate with what is not the musical note, which would of course be the ideal. This is not to say that I am opposed to meaning, not at all, but I prefer to speak in terms of poetry. I prefer to say that I am a poet even if I do not write poems, because the phonic and oral dimensions of language are present in poetry, whereas in the banal, clichéd language, one is far removed from oral language.

You have often defined the kind of writing that you have practiced over the past few years as écriture féminine, or more recently, with added caution, as a writing said to be feminine. This writing, poetic and musical, nevertheless engages in dialogue with the major discourses of our times.

I am obviously not without a minimum of philosophical and analytical knowledge, simply because I am part of a historical period. I cannot act as if I were not a contemporary of myself. Neither do I think that I must wage a mortal war against a certain type of discourse. Like most women of my generation, I believe, I had inhibitions, faced with the rigid, defining, and decisive side of most theoretical discourses. True, I did have resistances. I had to work through them in order to be able to approach the spaces containing a certain amount of useful and necessary knowledge in order to carry out another type of work which would be on the side of femininity. I am not and do not feel like being ignorant. Neither do I feel like being a prisoner of masculine culture, and I do not feel enslaved or threatened by that culture. I retain the open-ended part, that which is not specifically phallocentric, or phallogocentric, as Derrida would say. For example, I have an absolute need—and I must say that at this moment all human beings have a need—not to disregard the unconscious. It is not because it is a man who discovered it that I am going to be afraid it will be a bearded unconscious. Women have not made discoveries, because they have been kept from the scene—absolutely. They have been kept from making discoveries; that must be changed. But that which has been discovered is valid for the universe. I do have knowledge of theoretical discourses. Yet the part that represses women is a part which I quickly learned to detect and from which I keep my distance. One leaves these parts aside. One keeps all that is vital: for example, that which in Freudian discourse describes the trajectory of sexual formation, of drives, of dream work, etc.

Other theoreticians have defined the notion of writing. How do you see the relationship between what you call l'écriture dite féminine and other writings, for example, Derrida's écriture?

I have insisted on the necessity of not taking the classical feminist position, which consists in referring everything back to women and pretending that we have fallen from the sky. As far as women are concerned, some groundbreaking work has been done on the question of difference, on the differential, by Derrida. We know and use his work. The only thing is, of course, that he does not pretend to discuss femininity from the point of view of women. He does not. Yet what he does trace, in the most faithful and lucid manner in all of his texts, is a philosophical problem of sexuality. I would not say of masculine sexuality (that does not mean anything) but of a libidinal economy that really is on the side of masculinity—the way one could speak about it in the past—of which on the one hand he is conscious, on the other unconscious, which is also very interesting because obviously he cannot speak of his unconscious. But he is the only philosopher, and that in my opinion is important, who admits that there is a textual unconscious, who at the same time works on the unconscious other—but of course his own unconscious is also at work. When he works on the unconscious in Freud, one can also see his own unconscious appear; that is very important. For us, this is good, it is an essential contribution. So I say, and some do not seem to understand this, he is on the other shore. There is a river and there are riverbanks. It is true that he is, insofar as women are concerned, on the other side, on the side of the masculine territory, and we are on this side. But this common river does not separate—of course not. And if I have recourse to this metaphor, it is deliberately, and it is to say that it is really an aquatic metaphor, that this water is necessary, that it bathes shores and harbors and that one navigates in it. That is how one communicates.

However, this shore should, at the limit, disappear.

No, I do not think so. No, precisely, I do not believe that it should. One should not think in terms of making disappear something that does not really separate, something that hyphenates, a water that binds, that organizes a mobile and living continuity. But on the other hand, I believe that one has to work at this geography. One must explore effectively all the minute details, something which generally one does not do. This is where we work.

And how do you read the well-known and much debated passage from Spurs, which I quote from memory, "If style were man, writing would be woman"?

I do not remember it. In Spurs, Derrida nevertheless deals with a femininity fantasized by Nietzsche. There are many relays which have to be taken into account. Besides, I do not deny that this capacity to read Nietzsche—who lets himself be fantasized, or one may say hallucinated, by a phantasm of femininity—does signify a proximity. There is proximity, true, but it is not an identity. What about the phantasm itself? Derrida has very well defined the phantasm of femininity that haunted philosophical discourse, a phantasm which, among women, should provoke laughter. Unless, of course, they take themselves for men.

You say that it is necessary to "go outside" philosophical discourse.

Where did I say that?

In Illa, perhaps.

I would be careful about this statement. I do not know where or whether I wrote it. I am capable, when I speak, of saying things that I would not sign. Because I do distinguish as one should, I think, between speech and writing. For example, I reread when I write, and if I write nonsense, I apologize. In speech, I do not apologize. Like everybody, the spoken word escapes me; I may say things that are incorrect or insufficiently precise. For example, "to go outside of philosophy": I do not know whether I wrote it. If there is a philosophical culture, if one may say so, it would be the culture in which the philosophers are enclosed. Who must go outside of philosophy? I do not know if women are the ones. I am not sure about that at all. One should see in what context this formulation occurs and ask whether we women are in it. In order to go outside of it, one has to be in it. I am not sure that we are in philosophy. Must I answer directly? I do not believe that the question is that specific. For example, am I in philosophy? I do not think so. I have a relationship to philosophy, but it is one of dialogue, and I know very well that I am not a philosopher. In other words, I do not have a philosophical calling. I do not answer the calling of philosophy even if I am in a duet with something "philosophical," yet all the while invoking all the liberties warranted or unwarranted of poetry. Insofar as philosophy is concerned, if I refer myself especially to Derrida, it is because he, of course, works on excess. How to exceed, not how to exit from, how to go out of, and one exceeds without forgetting or retracting.

He says that writing is always based on an originary repression, whereas you write of undoing repressions.

I do not think that I am in disagreement with him. I suppose that when he says that, he says it in relation to writing, any kind of writing, any kind of inscription, philosophical, poetic, etc. In Grammatology, he treats of writing in general, of the text in general. When I talk about writing, that is not what I am talking about. One must displace at that moment; I do not speak about the concept of writing the way Derrida analyzes it. I speak in a more idealistic fashion. I allow this to myself; I disenfranchise myself from the philosophical obligations and corrections, which does not mean that I disregard them. I do not believe in a complete undoing of repressions. We are made of repressions, and the unconscious is nothing but that. However, one may attempt to write as closely as possible to the unconscious, to the area of repressions.

Yes, and also I want to write as freely as possible. Philosophical discourse, if you like, is not free, since it must obey imperatives of signification. A philosopher is obligated to hold on to logic—even Derrida, for example, who pushes his work to the limit where logic vacillates. Even when, or precisely when, he situates himself in the undecidable, that is to say where nothing cuts, decides, where everything is unhinged, where everything permanently vacillates. This is also recuperated and must again obey a new law, that of the logic of non-logic, because the moment you name the undecidable, you already, in a certain way, arrest it. Derrida knows this. That is why he always says that each time he arrests, each time he coins a concept, he hurries to put it into that general movement of oscillation in order not to make of it a master concept. But it is like a ford of a river, if you like: he must jump from concept to concept, or from rock to rock, whereas I allow myself to say, since I do not have any obligation toward philosophy, I really do prefer swimming. I prefer being in the water and openly in the water; for me, those inscriptions with which Derrida must deal do not exist. He says it himself.

For example, look at the way I write, how I write, how I reread myself. When a philosopher rereads himself, I do not know how he does it. I suppose that his reading is on the side of an economy, of signification, of its force. He wants to transmit as much meaning as possible. That is the writing of Derrida, who condenses in a way that is a polysemy. He transmits an intensity, a richness of condensation, of meaning. Philosophy is demonstrative. When I reread my texts, I do not seek to demonstrate. One could even accuse me of it. I do not ignore Derrida's philosophical work, in the wake of Heidegger, on presence, essence, all that you quoted me. If I were a philosopher, I could never allow myself to speak in terms of presence, essence, etc., or of the meaning of something. I would be capable of carrying on a philosophical discourse, but I do not. I let myself be carried off by the poetic word. Is it a mad word? Does it say something? I must say that my steed or my barge and my poetic body never do forget the philosophical rigor. So what is happening? Philosophy is like an accompaniment, but humorous. If one knows how to read and has a knowledge of philosophy, one will see that there is something like a surreptitious echo in everything I say, when I say that I believe in presence, in the coming onto presence. I know the Heideggerian problematic, which I have read very closely and which impassions me, but I have no obligation toward that kind of thinking, toward this kind of rigor. I take it into account but precisely as that from which I can take my distance. And I would even say that it is my mission, my calling, to be able to distance myself from it.

In my seminar, we work on texts by Heidegger and Derrida. We have also worked, for example, on texts by Rilke while traversing the Heideggerian field, or the Rilke-Heideggerian field. I do not have to produce theory. Like Rilke—he did not have to produce theory. Heidegger did that for him. Rilke, with the peculiar instrument infinitely freer than philosophical discourse, produced a series of works that are living objects in which you see, for example, how a rose opens up. In a certain way, poetry is disenfranchised from the obligation that philosophy has: to demonstrate, justify.

It seems that you make the same distinction between writer and philosopher as between woman and man.

Yes, of course. The closest allies of us women are the poets. They are our friends. True, they are the ones who are the furthest removed from anything decisive, cutting, and they let their femininity traverse them.

Do you read as writer or as critic?

I do my own reading. I am not looking to evaluate a text, or to theorize about it. Of course, I can do it, and sometimes I do it. For example, earlier in my life, under different circumstances, when I used to teach for the agrégation. But it is not at all my wish or my desire. I do not care to master a text. I am not interested in that. I am not interested in making it enter into categories, because really I grant myself the luxury to read in texts only that which for me is a question of life and death. So when I read, I ask of the text questions that I ask of myself. I ask questions like "where does it come from?" Questions of origin. Where does it go? How far? What stops? What arrests? My questions are of, and concern, human beings. That is what I focus on in my seminars. I ask questions concerning human beings in general. What causes some people to waste their lives, not to know how to live, and what makes others capable of pushing back the limits of death in life? And I ask myself questions concerning love in relation to a life-giving body or to one that gives death. Last year in my seminar I worked on two kinds of knowledge. At another time I took into consideration what I call fundamental traces, in the work of Kafka, Lispector, and Blanchot, for example. When one reads a text, one is able to see deep and profound tracings that are not themes—that are questions, you understand, not themes; themes are something else. I am talking of questions that are the very root of the works. What I took as root, as motive, of Kafka's work were a series of disturbing propositions from a notebook for Preparation of a Wedding in the Country, in which Kafka, in one of these internal dialogues where he constantly divides himself against himself, ends up by saying, "One can, however, not not live." He asks the question of the faith, what is faith, is there a faith, faiths, and he arrives at this proposition. There is all of Kafka. It is his way of living, of remaining in life, alive, in order not to give in to death. It is all in this sentence: "Man kann doch nicht, nicht leben." You have kann, you have leben, one can live, but it is not true, one has nicht, nicht. That is to say that at the heart of existence is that double negation, "one can not, not." And eventually, one sees precisely his economy. It is an economy of resistance, of resistance to death and not of affirmation of life.

If you follow this level of tragic, tormented depth, you will find by the same journey, by the same itinerary, at similar crossroads, Clarice Lispector, who arrives from the opposite side with her body, her torments, with her life, with her sorrows, and she says that to live is sufficient. I need nothing else but to live; living produces living. She does not say, "not not," she says the opposite. She affirms life in a pure affirmation; that is "feminine," that is the source itself, whereas in Kafka you will find the source cut off, cut off all the time. Continuity in Lispector, cuts in Kafka. These are two structures that are specifically "feminine" and "masculine," if you like. Though let me remind you that I do not equate feminine with woman and masculine with man. To say that which it would be interesting to be able to say, one would have to change the words. However, it is true that Lispector does not say "no, no." She is a woman who says things as closely as possible to a feminine economy, that is to say, one of the greatest generosity possible, of the greatest virtue, of the greatest spending. When I say that, it is because there is a common trait between her and Kafka. Their bodies paid for the difficulty of being on the side of writing in an absolutely similar way. I do not mean that I am not reading "literary objects," but I want to consider in them traces of life, enigmatic accounts.

So, if you like, living beings are for me to be read in a similar way, as closely and as passionately as possible. Simply, I do not talk about them, because they are alive, and so I would be afraid to do so. I respect, but I do not say—except in intimacy, of course—what I can discover, guess, that is mysterious in such and such a person, for example. And people, my students, do give themselves to read.

The oneiric elements seem to be of great importance in your texts. You constantly write about dreams, from dreams.

Immense. It is funny. I can tell you my love story with dreams. In a certain way I am a dreamer. So it is very complicated. I owe everything, almost everything to dream. What does that mean? It means that there is somebody else besides me, of course. I owe everything to somebody else, and in my innocence of times past, I felt guilty because when I started to write I wrote under pressure, under dictation, under the influence of the dream, which made me terribly ashamed. I was not the one who was writing. When I say I write during the day, that is to say that during the day I annotate, like a secretary of my unconscious. I note all that which inscribes itself, produces itself, develops at night, and which is infinitely larger than I. I used to be ashamed of it, I thought it was a kind of superpassion, because it happened at night. During the day I was there, because somebody had spoken. I was like somebody absolutely archaic. I had very primitive fears. I said to myself, what if all that would become silent or if it would not come back? I would not write anymore. I did not dare to say it. Now, it makes me laugh. Because after all, I know a little more on the account of the unconscious. It is like the sea, it is interminable. When it is silent, it also speaks. There are periods of desert. These are warning signs, exactly as in life.

Now I know about this. I know that if I am cut off from dreams, that means that there is a cut in communication with the deepest, the most essential life, with others in myself, because I let myself be alienated by numerous exterior and superficial activities. It can happen. At that moment one does not write. It is a bad thing. It is a betrayal of the deepest elements in one's relationship with the unconscious. The unconscious, as we know it, does not lie. So when I cannot write, that means that I am lying in my inner depth.

You also seem to privilege myths, which are closely related to dreams.

I work a lot on the level of myths, as much as on that of dreams. In reality, myth was that which took the place of analysis in former times. The myth of Oedipus, not at all in a Freudian mode, was of great importance. It showed that there was the universe, but one knew that there was also something else. One knew that something stronger than the social existed. I am passionately interested in myths, because they are always (this is well known) outside the law, like the unconscious. Only afterward there is the story, which signifies that there has been a clash between the in-law and the out-law. I do not say transgression, because it is not transgressive. The other world comes and collides with reality, with the reality principle. What happens? Interpretation, of course, because we do have myths and their interpretations. One never questions enough the traditions of interpretation of myth, and all myths have been referred to a masculine interpretation. If we women read them, we read them otherwise. That is why I often nourish my texts, in my own way, at those mythic sources.

In everything you write, you are also very close to analysis. What do you think of castration?

I think that castration is fundamental, unfortunately. One has to speak of castration as a phantasm, a fear. True, men are built, or rather one builds masculinity, virility, from one's own resistance to castration. I think that most men are obligated by it. I am not sure if there are many men who are protected from castration, from this kind of rite which of course is the passage through the moment that Freud describes very well with his story of the Medusa, the moment when there is erection, as rite, in the scene of castration. I believe that it structures the economy of men, but what does it give us women? Are we protected from castration? I think that there are women who are completely protected from the world which is organized around the resistance to castration. Surely, there are some. I believe that I know some. Yet since it is a phantasm, it may be communicated. There are women who are under the spell of castration, who are taken in by a phallocratic space. For them, the rite is something hallucinated, since it cannot rely on a bodily inscription, since there is no corporeal representation. Men experience pain in being castrated, yet castration is something imaginary that one feels very vividly, very strongly. I think that women have an analogous situation to that of men. They can feel a kind of castration, a feminine castration. Maybe the word should be displaced. But it should be displaced from a "masculine" border, a little like "masculine" and "feminine." The problem is that on the one hand, for the man there is an anatomic origin of the imaginary model, situated there where the little boy has his penis; on the other, his sexuality is probably not as stable, as continuous, as the feminine sexuality of jouissance, of pleasure, which is organized by an absence of cuts.

On the level of anatomy?

Of anatomy, on the level of the organ, no. But in the way of pleasure. That is where something could be transformed.

Do you think that your mode of writing is able to transform, to change the situation of women? Is there a strategic value?

I do not know whether I can effectuate transformations. But one always arrives at something when something that has been silenced is expressed, when something that has been inhibited expresses itself. It is true that it liberates something.

Do you consider your writing to be an action?

Yes, I think so. I think that there is also a test of reading. Texts with a strong "femininity," like some—not all—the texts of Lispector, put to test a certain jouissance. There are people who resist, who feel it as threat, while others are relieved by this very kind of rhythm.

When you talk about jouissance, are you not talking about something that had contributed to exclude women, to define them from a masculine border?

No, I do not think so. I do not see how men talk about feminine jouissance. That is precisely what devours them. That is what they are talking about in the mode of not-knowing. That is also what the analysts say, that is what Lacan said, when he spoke of women and of their pleasures: "They have nothing to say, they cannot speak." Fine. That means that he cannot hear them. It means also that he does not know anything about it. He says it clearly when he says: "All right, if you have something to say, say it." But he thinks that women have nothing to say. That is not true. Of course, they say it otherwise. They can say it. It can be defined. I think that in the classical heterosexual scene, the woman generally obeys the masculine demand, which is to give pleasure in the masculine way, to obey the masculine phantasm of feminine jouissance, which would be totally, exclusively genital and which leads to effects of inhibition, frigidity, in women. But a woman who is not deprived of her body must be able to find something of it again, and of course it is up to her to talk about it, to inscribe something of it; it is absolutely not organized in the centralized, ritualized way of men, that is true. But women have to say that, and their best listeners will still be women. I am trying to say a little of it in my texts.

If women differ from men in their mode of jouissance, following your distinctions of feminine and masculine economies, they should also differ in their relation to the gift.

The question of the gift is a question on which we have worked a lot, marking it and following it, if one may say, with a step as light and as airy, as "feminine" as possible. The question is of course the following: Is it possible that there is a gift? It is a question that has been treated at length by Derrida in a seminar on the philosophical mode, etc. Is there such a thing as a gift; can the gift take place? At the limit, one can ask oneself about the possibility of a real gift, a pure gift, a gift that would not be annulled by what one could call a countergift. That is also what Derrida worked on.

How does one give? It starts in a very simple way: in order for a gift to be, I must not be the one to give. A gift has to be like grace, it has to fall from the sky. If there are traces of origin of the I give, there is no gift—there is an I-give. Which also signifies: say "thank you," even if the other does not ask you to say it. As soon as we say thank you, we give back part or the whole gift. We have been brought up in the space of the debt, and so we say thank you. Is it possible to imagine that there can be a gift? This presupposes that I be in parentheses, that I accede to a transparency but without disappearance, because otherwise it would be a divine gift. And one does not receive anything from God. The gift has to be sent in such a way that it does not come back immediately, and it has to arrive at its destination. That is one of Derrida's problematics. Does the gift arrive at its destination? For there to be gift, there has to be reception. Reception has to be equal to donation, there has to be an equal generosity of reception. So a real gift is quite rare.

In your own texts, you started from the question of waiting and you come back to the problem of waiting, but now it is displaced. You also critiqued presence, essence, and you now come back to them. How do you see these changes in your positions?

I am first going to take the question of waiting, because, as a matter of fact, it has been symptomatic of an evolution. I believe that I have dealt with it in former texts; I am sure I must have written about scenes of bad expectations, bad waitings, scenes of impatience. I say that I would be surprised if I had criticized the woman in the scene. Rather I must have criticized the scene itself with its content, cruel, sadistic, with suspense. I may be wrong. I must have at a certain moment spoken of the drama lived by the woman waiting. It is an old drama, it is that which one sees in literature since its origins. It is that which makes man leave the house. He leaves and woman waits; that can be carried extremely far. I would even say that culturally, woman has been assigned to immobility and man to navigation, and that the model is Ulysses and Penelope. Maybe Penelope was the first woman writer, since she spent her time writing and unwriting, precisely so that her man might come back into the space of the book. It is true that in a period that would correspond roughly to classical tragedy, or to the story of any classically heterosexual woman, the story is always the same, Ulysses and Penelope. One would like to see Penelope's tapestry; one does not know what is on it—most likely painful stories of anguish. But that is when waiting is painful, is organized precisely around an absence, around a lack, around the violence of the other, etc.

In my most recent texts, I believe in particular in With ou l'art de l'innocence, I work on something entirely different. I work on a happy expectation which could be compared, for example, to that of the pregnant mother, who expects a child, as one says. I find this a wonderful expression. She waits the time it takes for the child to be born. And not only that, but she takes pleasure in waiting, for nine months. It is a wait which is on the side of gestation, of production. I say this metaphorically. I will give you a play on words: attendre, to wait, and hâte tendre, tender haste. La tendre hâte, the tender haste, the insistence on the wait which is tender, which is not violent, which is expected, which is soft, sweet, and not impatient. I do not want to talk about a kind of resigned patience which is the Christian patience—not at all—but about a capacity to live, a creative capacity, which is not obliged to precipitate itself like a fiat. It is not that of the woman who waits in a situation of cruelty that is imposed on her, of violence, but on the contrary a wait that is capable of taking pleasure in each instant, that does not jump over instants by saying, I cannot wait until the end of nine months. She enjoys each time, each measure. Clarice Lispector, for example, sings the present, so that each moment, each instant, is a blessing lived to its fullest.

I have to say that there are several conditions for this. First, you cannot be in the painful situation where you are made to wait and where it is you who do the waiting. Waiting is an art, our life has its rhythms, etc. The present times with their precipitation, technologies, accelerated daily rhythms, television, have destroyed in us the "good old time," a human time. As soon as one is in an urban space, one does not have time anymore. Time flies by us, we do not live it. One must leave and retreat. I am only saying the obvious. I think that when one retreats, one is also already so frenetic that one starts to run again when one is by the sea where there are no bus stops, no television screens.

What about your cheminement, your development?

I think that what is inscribed in what I have written is a certain story, a certain history, which is mine and, I believe, that of every woman. I think it is quite exemplary. Besides, it is truly a history insofar as it has a development in time, because I absolutely do believe in experience. I think that we traverse in time moments which, little by little, allow us to advance and to learn to live. One does not know how to live; one learns to live, in my case traditionally, since I come from a classical milieu. After a while, it is true, something disengages, detaches itself. One could distinguish at the same time large biographical and textual periods that mark the stages in a cheminement, which in any case will always be there because at the bottom I am really a questioner. I cannot even imagine that I will get to the end of the questions asked of me in such overabundance. I do not cease not to understand. Simply, the things I do not understand renew themselves incessantly. Once I have understood something that I did not understand before, it is behind me. And I open myself before the next enigma. Then I have something else that is before me, always like a wonderful America to be discovered, but always to be discovered….

Toril Moi (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Hélène Cixous: An Imaginary Utopia," in Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, Methuen, 1985, pp. 102-26.

[Moi is an American educator and critic who has written extensively about various issues in literature, film, and feminist critical theory. In the essay below, she provides an overview of Cixous's fundamental tenets, stating that despite flaws in her works they "nevertheless [constitute] an invigorating utopian evocation of the imaginative powers of women."]

      Do I contradict myself?       Very well then … I contradict myself;       I am large … I contain multitudes.                              (Walt Whitman)

It is largely due to the efforts of Hélène Cixous that the question of an écriture féminine came to occupy a central position in the political and cultural debate in France in the 1970s. Between 1975 and 1977 she produced a whole series of theoretical (or semi-theoretical) writings, all of which set out to explore the relations between women, femininity, feminism and the production of texts: La Jeune Née (in collaboration with Catherine Clément, 1975), 'Le Rire de la Méduse' (1975), translated as 'The laugh of the Medusa' (1976), 'Le Sexe ou la tête?' (1976), translated as 'Castration or decapitation?' (1981) and La Venue à l'écriture (1977). These texts are closely interrelated: thus 'Sorties', Cixous's main contribution to La Jeune Née, contains long passages of the separately published 'The laugh of the Medusa'. The fact that many central ideas and images are constantly repeated, tends to present her work as a continuum that encourages nonlinear forms of reading. Her style is often intensely metaphorical, poetic and explicitly anti-theoretical, and her central images create a dense web of signifiers that offers no obvious edge to seize hold of for the analytically minded critic. It is not easy to operate cuts into, open vistas in or draw maps of Cixous's textual jungle; moreover, the texts themselves make it abundantly clear that this resistance to analysis is entirely intentional. Cixous believes neither in theory nor analysis (though she does practise both—as for instance in her doctoral thesis L'Exil de James Joyce ou l'art du remplacement (1968), translated in 1972 as The Exile of James Joyce or the Art of Replacement, or in her Prénoms de personne from 1974); nor, indeed, does she approve of feminist analytical discourses: she is, after all, the woman who first flatly declared that 'I am not a feminist', and later went on to say that 'I do not have to produce theory'. Accusing feminist researchers in the humanities of turning away from the present towards the past, she rejects their efforts as pure 'thematics'. According to Cixous, such feminist critics will inevitably find themselves caught up in the oppressive network of hierarchical binary oppositions propagated by patriarchal ideology. Hopeful feminist analysts of Cixous's 'literary theory' might just as well not apply.

And yet this is not a wholly accurate picture of Cixous's position. The statements quoted, taken out of their contemporary French context, tend to fix her views in an altogether too rigid mould. Her refusal of the label 'feminism' is first and foremost based on a definition of 'feminism' as a bourgeois, egalitarian demand for women to obtain power in the present patriarchal system; for Cixous, 'feminists' are women who want power, 'a place in the system, respect, social legitimation'. Cixous does not reject what she prefers to call the women's movement (as opposed to the static rigidity of so-called 'feminism'); on the contrary, she is strongly in favour of it, and between 1976 and 1982 published all her works with des femmes to demonstrate her political commitment to the anti-patriarchal struggle. To many French feminists, as well as to most feminists outside France, however, this kind of scholastic wrangling over the word 'feminist' would seem to be politically damaging to the women's movement as a whole. In France it caused members of the collective 'politique et psychanalyse' to march in the streets on International Women's Day carrying placards reading 'Down with feminism!', thus generating a considerable amount of hostility and acrimony within the women's movement, much of which was displayed in public. The main effect of the 'anti-feminist' initiative of the 'politique et psychanalyse' group seems to have been the production of a general impression of rancour and disarray within French feminism. I have therefore no intention of following Cixous's lead on this point: according to accepted English usage, her indubitable commitment to the struggle for women's liberation in France, as well as her strong critique of patriarchal modes of thought, make her a feminist. Having said this, it is of course both relevant and necessary to go on to explore the kind of feminist theory and politics she represents.

Patriarchal binary thought

One of Cixous's most accessible ideas is her analysis of what one might call 'patriarchal binary thought'. Under the heading 'Where is she?', Cixous lines up the following list of binary oppositions:

        Activity/Passivity         Sun/Moon         Culture/Nature         Day/Night         Father/Mother         Head/Emotions         Intelligible/Sensitive         Logos/Pathos                                 [La Jeune Née]

Corresponding as they do to the underlying opposition man/woman, these binary oppositions are heavily imbricated in the patriarchal value system: each opposition can be analysed as a hierarchy where the 'feminine' side is always seen as the negative, powerless instance. For Cixous, who at this point is heavily indebted to Jacques Derrida's work, Western philosophy and literary thought are and have always been caught up in this endless series of hierarchical binary oppositions that always in the end come back to the fundamental 'couple' of male/female.

       Nature/History        Nature/Art        Nature/Mind        Passion/Action                             [La Jeune Née]

These examples show that it doesn't much matter which 'couple' one chooses to highlight: the hidden male/female opposition with its inevitable positive/negative evaluation can always be traced as the underlying paradigm.

In a typical move, Cixous then goes on to locate death at work in this kind of thought. For one of the terms to acquire meaning, she claims, it must destroy the other. The 'couple' cannot be left intact: it becomes a general battle-field where the struggle for signifying supremacy is forever re-enacted. In the end, victory is equated with activity and defeat with passivity; under patriarchy, the male is always the victor. Cixous passionately denounces such an equation of femininity with passivity and death as leaving no positive space for woman: 'Either woman is passive or she doesn't exist'. Her whole theoretical project can in one sense be summed up as the effort to undo this logocentric ideology: to proclaim woman as the source of life, power and energy and to hail the advent of a new, feminine language that ceaselessly subverts these patriarchal binary schemes where logocentrism colludes with phallocentrism in an effort to oppress and silence women.


Against any binary scheme of thought, Cixous sets multiple, heterogeneous difference. In order to understand her arguments at this point, however, it is necessary first to examine Jacques Derrida's concept of difference (or, rather différance). Many early structuralists, as for instance A. J. Greimas in his Sémantique structurale, held that meaning is produced precisely through binary oppositions. Thus in the opposition masculine/feminine, each term only achieves significance through its structural relationship to the other: 'masculine' would be meaningless without its direct opposite 'feminine' and vice versa. All meaning would be produced in this way. An obvious counterargument to this theory is the many examples of adjectives or adverbs of degree (much—more—most, little—less—least), which seem to produce their meaning in relation to the other items in the same series, not in relation to their binary opposites.

Derrida's critique of binary logic, however, is more far-reaching in its implications. For Derrida, meaning (signification) is not produced in the static closure of the binary opposition. Rather it is achieved through the 'free play of the signifier'. One way of illustrating Derrida's arguments at this point is to use Saussure's concept of the phoneme, defined as the smallest differential—and therefore signifying—unit in language. The phoneme can in no way be said to achieve signification through binary opposition alone. In itself the phoneme /b/ does not signify anything at all. If we had only one phoneme, there would be no meaning and no language. /b/ only signifies in so far as it is perceived to be different from say /k/ or /h/. Thus /bat/:/kat/:/hat/ are all perceived to be different words with different meanings in English. The argument is that /b/ signifies only through a process that effectively defers its meaning on to other differential elements in language. In a sense it is the other phonemes that enable us to determine the meaning of /b/. For Derrida, signification is produced precisely through this kind of open-ended play between the presence of one signifier and the absence of others.

This, then, is the basic significance of the Derridean term différance. Spelt with an 'a' to distinguish it—in writing, not in speech—from the normal French word for difference (différence), it acquires the more active sense of the ending '-ance' in French, and can therefore be translated both as 'difference' and as 'deferral' in English. As we have seen, the interplay between presence and absence that produces meaning is posited as one of deferral: meaning is never truly present, but is only constructed through the potentially endless process of referring to other, absent signifiers. The 'next' signifier can in a sense be said to give meaning to the 'previous' one, and so on ad infinitum. There can thus be no 'transcendental signified' where the process of deferral somehow would come to an end. Such a transcendental signified would have to be meaningful in itself, fully present to itself, requiring no origin and no end other than itself. An obvious example of such a 'transcendental signified' would be the Christian concept of God as Alpha and Omega, the origin of meaning and final end of the world. Similarly, the traditional view of the author as the source and meaning of his or her own text casts the author in the role of transcendental signified.

Derrida's analysis of the production of meaning thus implies a fundamental critique of the whole of Western philosophical tradition, based as it is on a 'metaphysics of presence', which discerns meaning as fully present in the Word (or Logos). Western metaphysics comes to favour speech over writing precisely because speech presupposes the presence of the speaking subject, who thus can be cast as the unitary origin of his or her discourse. The idea that a text is somehow only fully authentic when it expresses the presence of a human subject would be one example of the implicit privileging of voice or speech over writing. Christopher Norris provides an excellent summary of Derrida's views on this point:

Voice becomes a metaphor of truth and authenticity, a source of self-present 'living' speech as opposed to the secondary lifeless emanations of writing. In speaking one is able to experience (supposedly) an intimate link between sound and sense, an inward and immediate realization of meaning which yields itself up without reserve to perfect, transparent understanding. Writing, on the contrary, destroys this ideal of pure self-presence. It obtrudes an alien, depersonalized medium, a deceiving shadow which falls between intent and meaning, between utterance and understanding. It occupies a promiscuous public realm where authority is sacrificed to the vagaries and whims of textual 'dissemination'. Writing, in short, is a threat to the deeply traditional view that associates truth with self-presence and the 'natural' language wherein it finds expression.

In order to grasp Derrida's distinction between writing and speech, it is important to realize that writing as a concept is closely related to différance; thus Norris defines writing as the 'endless displacement of meaning which both governs language and places it for ever beyond the reach of a stable, self-authenticating knowledge'. Derrida's analysis undermines and subverts the comforting closure of the binary opposition. Throwing the field of signification wide open, writing—textuality—acknowledges the free play of the signifier and breaks open what Cixous perceives as the prison-house of patriarchal language.

Ecriture féminine 1) masculinity, femininity, bisexuality

Cixous's concept of feminine writing is crucially related to Derrida's analysis of writing as différance. For Cixous, feminine texts are texts that 'work on the difference', as she once put it, strive in the direction of difference, struggle to undermine the dominant phallogocentric logic, split open the closure of the binary opposition and revel in the pleasures of open-ended textuality.

However, Cixous is adamant that even the term écriture féminine or 'feminine writing' is abhorrent to her, since terms like 'masculine' and 'feminine' themselves imprison us within a binary logic, within the 'classical vision of sexual opposition between men and women'. She has therefore chosen to speak either of a 'writing said to be feminine' (or masculine) or, more recently, of a 'decipherable libidinal femininity which can be read in writing produced by a male or a female'. It is not, apparently, the empirical sex of the author that matters, but the kind of writing at stake. She thus warns against the dangers of confusing the sex of the author with the 'sex' of the writing he or she produces:

Most women are like this: they do someone else's—man's—writing, and in their innocence sustain it and give it voice, and end up producing writing that's in effect masculine. Great care must be taken in working on feminine writing not to get trapped by names: to be signed with a woman's name doesn't necessarily make a piece of writing feminine. It could quite well be masculine writing, and conversely, the fact that a piece of writing is signed with a man's name does not in itself exclude femininity. It's rare, but you can sometimes find femininity in writings signed by men: it does happen. ['Castration or decapitation?']

Indeed one of the reasons why Cixous is so keen to get rid of the old opposition between masculine and feminine, and even of terms like male or female, is her strong belief in the inherently bisexual nature of all human beings. In 'The laugh of the Medusa' (and also in La Jeune Née—some of the passages dealing with these themes are reproduced in both texts) she first attacks the 'classic conception of bisexuality', which is 'squashed under the emblem of castration fear and along with the fantasy of a "total" being (though composed of two halves), would do away with the difference'. This homogeneous conception of bisexuality is designed to cater for the male fear of the Other (woman) in so far as it allows him to fantasize away the ineluctable signs of sexual difference. Opposing this view, Cixous produces what she calls the other bisexuality, which is multiple, variable and ever-changing, consisting as it does of the 'non-exclusion either of the difference or of one sex'. Among its characteristics is the 'multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire, over all parts of my body and the other body, indeed, this other bisexuality doesn't annul differences, but stirs them up, pursues them, increases them'.

Today, according to Cixous, it is 'for historico-cultural reasons … women who are opening up to and benefiting from this vatic bisexuality', or as she puts it: 'In a certain way, "woman" is bisexual; man—it's a secret to no one—being poised to keep glorious phallic monosexuality in view'. She denies the possibility of ever defining a feminist practice of writing:

For this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded—which doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system; it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination. ['The laugh of the Medusa']

She does, however, supply a definition that not only echoes Derrida's concept of écriture, but also seems to be identical with her own concept of the 'other bisexuality':

To admit that writing is precisely working (in) the in-between, inspecting the process of the same and of the other without which nothing can live, undoing the work of death—to admit this is first to want the two, as well as both, the ensemble of one and the other, not fixed in sequence of struggle and expulsion or some other form of death but infinitely dynamized by an incessant process of exchange from one subject to another. ['The laugh of the Medusa']

Here it would seem that for Cixous writing as such is bisexual. However, she also argues that, at least at present, women (which clearly indicates biological females as opposed to males) are much more likely to be bisexual in this sense than men. Bisexual writing is therefore overwhelmingly likely to be women's writing, though some exceptional men may in certain cases manage to break with their 'glorious monosexuality' and achieve bisexuality as well. This position is clearly logical enough. In keeping with this anti-essentialist vein, Cixous, in 'The laugh of the Medusa', argues that in France only Colette, Marguerite Duras and Jean Genet really qualify as feminine (or bisexual) writers. In La Jeune Née she also points to Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Kleist's Penthesilea as powerful representations of the feminine libidinal economy.

So far, then, Cixous's position would seem to constitute a forceful feminist appropriation of Derridean theory. Antiessentialist and anti-biologistic, her work in this field seems to displace the whole feminist debate around the problem of women and writing away from an empiricist emphasis on the sex of the author towards an analysis of the articulations of sexuality and desire within the literary text itself. Unfortunately, this is not the whole story. As we shall see, Cixous's theory is riddled with contradictions: every time a Derridean idea is evoked, it is opposed and undercut by a vision of woman's writing steeped in the very metaphysics of presence she claims she is out to unmask.

The gift and the proper

Cixous's distinction between the gift and the proper provides the first signs of a slippage away from Derridean antiessentialism. Though she refuses to accept the binary opposition of femininity and masculinity, Cixous repeatedly insists on her own distinction between a 'masculine' and a 'feminine' libidinal economy. These are marked, respectively, by the Realm of the Proper and the Realm of the Gift. Masculinity or masculine value systems are structured according to an 'economy of the proper'. Proper—property—appropriate: signalling an emphasis on self-identity, self-aggrandizement and arrogative dominance, these words aptly characterize the logic of the proper according to Cixous. The insistence on the proper, on a proper return, leads to the masculine obsession with classification, systematization and hierachization. Her attack on class has little to do with the proletariat:

There's work to be done against class, against categorization, against classification—classes. 'Doing classes' in France means doing military service. There's work to be done against military service, against all schools, against the pervasive masculine urge to judge, diagnose, digest, name … not so much in the sense of the loving precision of poetic naming as in that of the repressive censorship of philosophical nomination/conceptualization. ['Castration or decapitation?']

Theoretical discourse is in other words inherently oppressive, a result of masculine libidinal investment. Even the question 'What is it?' is denounced as a sign of the masculine impulse to imprison reality in rigid hierarchical structures:

As soon as the question 'What is it?' is posed, from the moment a question is put, as soon as a reply is sought, we are already caught up in masculine interrogation. I say 'masculine interrogation': as we say so-and-so was interrogated by the police. ['Castration or decapitation?']

Linking the Realm of the Proper to a 'masculine libidinal economy' is of course impeccably anti-biologistic. Defining it essentially as the male fear of castration (here labelled the 'masculine fear of the loss of the attribute'), however, is not:

One realizes that the Realm of the Proper is erected on the basis of a fear which as a matter of fact is typically masculine: a fear of expropriation, of separation, of the loss of the attribute. In other words: the impact of the threat of castration. [La Jeune Née]

In her article 'Castration or decapitation?' Cixous elaborates on this idea of the proper as proper to the male:

Etymologically, the 'proper' is 'property', that which is not separable from me. Property is proximity, nearness: we must love our neighbors, those close to use as ourselves: we must draw close to the other so that we may love him/her, because we love ourselves most of all. The Realm of the Proper, culture, functions by the appropriation articulated, set in to play, by man's classic fear of seeing himself expropriated, seeing himself deprived … by his refusal to be deprived, in a state of separation, by his fear of losing the prerogative, fear whose response is all of History. Everything must return to the masculine. 'Return': the economy is founded on a system of returns. If a man spends and is spent, it's on condition that his power returns.

The now male Realm of the Proper seems a textbook illustration of Derrida's 'metaphysics of presence'. One might therefore expect its opponent, the Realm of the Gift, to illustrate a more deconstructive approach. Cixous distinguishes between two different kinds of gifts. First there is the gift as it is perceived by men. For the male psyche, to receive a gift is a dangerous thing:

For the moment you receive something you are effectively 'open' to the other, and if you are a man you have only one wish, and that is hastily to return the gift, to break the circuit of an exchange that could have no end … to be nobody's child, to owe no one a thing.

In the Realm of the Proper, the gift is perceived as establishing an inequality—a difference—that is threatening in that it seems to open up an imbalance of power. Thus the act of giving becomes a subtle means of aggression, of exposing the other to the threat of one's own superiority. The woman, however, gives without a thought of return. Generosity is one of the most positive words in Cixous's vocabulary:

If there is a 'propriety of woman', it is paradoxically her capacity to depropriate unselfishly, body without end, without appendage, without principal 'parts'…. This doesn't mean that she's an undifferentiated magma, but that she doesn't lord it over her body or her desire…. Her libido is cosmic, just as her unconscious is worldwide. Her writing can only keep going, without ever inscribing or discerning contours, daring to make these vertiginous crossings of the other(s) ephemeral and passionate sojourns in him, her, them, whom she inhabits long enough to look at from the point closest to their unconscious from the moment they awaken, to love them at the point closest to their drives; and then further, impregnated through and through with these brief, identificatory embraces, she goes and passes into infinity. She alone dares and wishes to know from within, where she, the outcast, has never ceased to hear the resonance of fore-language. She lets the other language speak—the language of 1,000 tongues which knows neither enclosure nor death. ['The laugh of the Medusa']

The slippage from 'feminine' to 'female' (or 'woman') can here clearly be seen. Elaborating on her theme, Cixous adds that woman gives because she doesn't suffer from castration anxiety (fear of ex-propriation, as she often puts it) in the way men do. In spite of its clear biologism, the Realm of the Gift does seem to correspond fairly closely to a Derridean definition of writing: the feminine/female libidinal economy is open to difference, willing to be 'traversed by the other', characterized by spontaneous generosity; the Realm of the Gift isn't really a realm at all, but a deconstructive space of pleasure and orgasmic interchange with the other. There is no doubt that Cixous explicitly tries to give her exposition of the two 'libidinal economies' a Derridean profile. She warns, for instance, that 'one must beware of blindly or complaisantly falling into essentialist ideological interpretations', and refuses to accept any theory that posits a thematic origin of power and sexual difference. This effort is, however, not only partly undercut by her biologism: in her evocations of a specifically female writing she seems actively intent on promoting an utterly metaphysical case.

Ecriture féminine 2) the source and the voice

In La Jeune Née Cixous first reiterates her refusal to theorize about writing and femininity, only to indicate that she is, after all, willing to open up a discussion on the matter. What she describes as some tentative comments turn out to be no less than a lyrical, euphoric evocation of the essential bond between feminine writing and the mother as source and origin of the voice to be heard in all female texts. Femininity in writing can be discerned in a privileging of the voice: 'writing and voice … are woven together'. The speaking woman is entirely her voice: 'She physically materializes what she's thinking; she signifies it with her body'. Woman, in other words, is wholly and physically present in her voice—and writing is no more than the extension of this self-identical prolongation of the speech act. The voice in each woman, moreover, is not only her own, but springs from the deepest layers of her psyche: her own speech becomes the echo of the primeval song she once heard, the voice the incarnation of the 'first voice of love which all women preserve alive … in each woman sings the first nameless love'. It is, in short, the Voice of the Mother, that omnipotent figure that dominates the fantasies of the pre-Oedipal baby: 'The Voice, a song before the Law, before the breath [le souffle] was split by the symbolic, reappropriated into language under the authority that separates. The deepest, most ancient and adorable of visitations'.

Finding its source in a time before the Law came into being, the voice is nameless: it is placed firmly in the pre-Oedipal stage before the child acquires language, and thereby the capacity to name itself and its objects. The voice is the mother and the mother's body: 'Voice: inexhaustible milk. She has been found again. The lost mother. Eternity: it is the voice mixed with milk'. The speaking/writing woman is in a space outside time (eternity), a space that allows no naming and no syntax. In her article 'Women's Time', Julia Kristeva has argued that syntax is constitutive of our sense of chronological time by the very fact that the order of words in a sentence marks a temporal sequence: since subject, verb, object cannot be spoken simultaneously, their utterance necessarily cuts up the temporal continuum of 'eternity'. Cixous, then, presents this nameless pre-Oedipal space filled with mother's milk and honey as the source of the song that resonates through all female writing.

The fact that women have this 'privileged relationship to the voice' is due to their relative lack of defence-mechanisms: 'No woman ever heaps up as many defences against their libidinal drives as a man does'. Whereas man represses the mother, woman doesn't (or hardly does): she is always close to the mother as the source of good. Cixous's mother-figure is clearly what Melanie Klein would call the Good Mother: the omnipotent and generous dispenser of love, nourishment and plenitude. The writing woman is thus immensely powerful: hers is a puissance féminine derived directly from the mother, whose giving is always suffused with strength: 'The more you have, the more you give the more you are, the more you give the more you have'.

The most explicit description of an actual example of female writing produced under the Sign of the Voice, Cixous's article on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, stresses both her openness and generosity, and, in a deeply un-Derridean passage, her capacity to endow words with their essential meaning:

There is almost nothing left of the sea but a word without water: for we have also translated the words, we have emptied them of their speech, dried, reduced and embalmed them, and they cannot any longer remind us of the way they used to rise up from the things as the peal of their essential laughter … But a clarice voice only has to say: the sea, the sea, for my keel to split open, the sea is calling me, sea! calling me, waters! ('L'approche')

In her article on Marguerite Duras and Hélène Cixous, Christiane Makward distinguishes between twelve different kinds of style in Cixous's novel LA: seven poetic and five narrative levels. Five of the seven poetic levels of style can be characterized as in some way biblical, liturgical or mythological. These high poetic inflections find their way into Cixous's more theoretical writings as well. La Venue à l'écriture opens on the biblical note of 'In the beginning I adored'. In this text, as in many others, Cixous casts herself, if not as a goddess, at least as a prophetess—the desolate mother out to save her people, a feminine Moses as well as the Pharaoh's daughter:

The tears I shed at night! The waters of the world flow from my eyes, I wash my people in my despair, I bathe them, I lick them with my love, I go to the banks of the Nile to gather the peoples abandoned in wicker baskets; for the fate of the living I have the tireless love of a mother, that is why I am everywhere, my cosmic belly, I work on my worldwide unconscious, I throw death out, it comes back, we begin again, I am pregnant with beginnings. [La Venue à l'écriture]

Laying claim to all possible subject positions, the speaking subject can indeed proudly proclaim herself as a 'feminine plural', who through reading and writing partakes of divine eternity:

The book—I could reread it with the help of memory and forgetting. Start over again. From another perspective, from another and yet another. Reading, I discovered that writing is endless. Everlasting. Eternal.

Writing or God. God the writing. The writing God. [La Venue à l'écriture]

Cixous's predilection for the Old Testament is obvious, but her taste for classical antiquity is no less marked. Her capacity for identification seems endless: Medusa, Electra, Antigone, Dido, Cleopatra—in her imagination she has been them all. In fact, she declares that 'I am myself the earth, everything that happens on it, all the lives that live me there in my different forms'. This constant return to biblical and mythological imagery signals her investment in the world of myth: a world that, like the distant country of fairy tales is perceived as pervasively meaningful, as closure and unity. The mythical or religious discourse presents a universe where all difference, struggle and discord can in the end be satisfactorily resolved. Her mythical and biblical allusions are often accompanied by—or interspersed with—'oceanic' water imagery, evoking the endless pleasures of the polymorphously perverse child:

We are ourselves sea, sand, coral, sea-weed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves…. Heterogeneous, yes. For her joyous benefits she is erogeneous; she is the erotogeneity of the heterogeneous: airborne swimmer, in flight, she does not cling to herself; she is dispersible, prodigious, stunning, desirous and capable of others, of the other woman that she will be, of the other woman she isn't, of him, of you. ['The laugh of the Medusa']

For Cixous, as for countless mythologies, water is the feminine element par excellence: the closure of the mythical world contains and reflects the comforting security of the mother's womb. It is within this space that Cixous's speaking subject is free to move from one subject position to another, or to merge oceanically with the world. Her vision of female writing is in this sense firmly located within the closure of the Lacanian Imaginary: a space in which all difference has been abolished.

Such an emphasis on the Imaginary can explain why the writing woman enjoys such extraordinary freedom in Cixous's universe. In the Imaginary mother and child are part of a fundamental unity: they are one. Protected by the all-powerful Good Mother, the writing woman can always and everywhere feel deeply secure and shielded from danger: nothing will ever harm her, distance and separation will never disable her. Shakespeare's Cleopatra becomes an example of such triumphant femininity:

The intelligence, the strength of Cleopatra appear particularly in the work she accomplishes—a work of love—on the distance, the gap, the separation: she only evokes the gap in order to fill it to overflowing, never tolerating a separation that could harm the lover's body.

Antony and Cleopatra can risk anything since they will always save each other from harm: the self can be abandoned precisely in so far as it can always be recuperated. If Cixous's poetic discourse often acquires a haunting beauty in its evocations of the paradise of childhood, it does so not least through its refusal to accept the loss of that privileged realm. The mother's voice, her breasts, milk, honey and female waters are all invoked as part of an eternally present space surrounding her and her readers.

This Imaginary world, however, is not flawlessly homogeneous. We have already seen that the female Realm of the Gift is one of a deconstructive openness to difference, and though Cixous describes female writing largely in terms of the abiding presence of the Mother's Voice, she also presents the voice as an operation of detachment, splitting and fragmentation. In La Venue à l'écriture, the desire to write is first of all presented as a force that she cannot consciously control: her body contains 'another limitless space' that demands she give it a written form. Fighting against it—no blackmail will make her yield—she nevertheless feels a secret fascination for this overpowering souffle:

Because it [il] was so strong and so furious, I loved and feared this breath. To be lifted up one morning, snatched off the ground, swung in the air. To be surprised. To find in myself the possibility of the unexpected. To fall asleep as a mouse and wake up as an eagle! What delight! What terror. And I had nothing to do with it, I couldn't help it. [La Venue à l'écriture]

This passage, particularly with its French use of the masculine pronoun il for souffle throughout, reads somewhat like a transposition of a well-known feminine rape fantasy: il sweeps the woman off her feet; terrified and delighted she submits to the attack. Afterwards she feels stronger and more powerful (like an eagle), as if she had integrated the power of the phallus during the scene. And as in all rape fantasies, the delight and jouissance spring from the fact that the woman is blameless: she didn't want it, so cannot be guilty of any illicit desires. (Needless to say, this description only concerns rape fantasies and has nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of rape.) This is a brilliant evocation of women's relationship to language in the phallocentric symbolic order: if a woman is to write, she will feel guilty about her desire to obtain mastery over language unless she can fantasize away her own responsibility for such an unspeakable wish. But Cixous's account of the text as rape also constitutes the background for her vision of the text as the Good Mother: 'I was eating the texts, I was sucking, licking, kissing them, I am the innumerable child of their multitudes'. A Kleinian analysis of the mother's nipple as a pre-Oedipal penis image might illuminate this striking oral relationship to the text she reads—which, after all, also must be the text she guiltily hopes some day to write: 'Write? I was dying to do it for love, to give the writing what it [elle] had given to me. What an ambition! What impossible happiness. Feed my own mother. Give her, in her turn, my milk? Mad imprudence'. The text as mother becomes the text as rape, in a sequence of rapid transformations:

I said 'write French'. One writes in. Penetration. Door. Knock before you enter. Absolutely forbidden…. How could I not have wanted to write? When books took me, transported me, pierced me to the depths of my soul, let me feel their disinterested potency?… When my being was being populated, my body traversed and fertilized, how could I have closed myself up in silence? [La Venue à l'écriture]

Mother-text, rape-text; submission to the phallic rule of language as differential, as a structure of gaps and absences; celebration of writing as the realm of the omnipotent mother: Cixous will always incorporate differences, juxtapose contradictions, work to undo gaps and distinctions, fill the gap to overflowing, and happily integrate both penis and nipple.

Imaginary contradictions

Fundamentally contradictory, Cixous's theory of writing and femininity shifts back and forth from a Derridean emphasis on textuality as difference to a full-blown metaphysical account of writing as voice, presence and origin. In a 1984 interview, Cixous shows herself to be perfectly aware of these contradictions:

If I were a philosopher, I could never allow myself to speak in terms of presence, essence, etc., or of the meaning of something. I would be capable of carrying on a philosophical discourse, but I do not. I let myself be carried off by the poetic word.

In a reference to Derrida's Of Grammatology she explains the relationship (or lack of it) between Derrida's concept and her own:

In Grammatology, he treats of writing in general, of the text in general. When I talk about writing, that is not what I am talking about. One must displace at the moment; I do not speak about the concept of writing the way Derrida analyzes it. I speak in a more idealistic fashion. I allow this to myself; I disenfranchise myself from the philosophical obligations and corrections, which does not mean that I disregard them.

Though her own theoretico-poetic style apparently strives to undo the opposition, Cixous's work bases itself on a conscious distinction between 'poetry' and 'philosophy' (a distinction Derrida himself might well want to deconstruct). How then can we best illuminate Cixous's seeming passion for contradiction? Some might claim it as a cunning strategy intended to prove her own point: by refusing to accept the Aristotelian logic that excludes A from also being not A, Cixous deftly enacts her own deconstruction of patriarchal logic. But this argument assumes that Cixous's point really is a deconstructive one, and thus over-looks the many passages that present a thoroughly metaphysical position. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it would seem that her textual manoeuvres are designed to create a space in which the différance of the Symbolic Order can co-exist peacefully with the closure and identity of the Imaginary. Such co-existence, however, covers only one aspect of Cixous's vision: the level on which the female essence is described in deconstructive terms, as for instance in the Realm of the Gift, or in those passages relating to the heterogeneous multiplicity of the 'new bisexuality'. But we have seen that even the openness of the Giving Woman or the plurality of bisexual writing are characterized by biblical, mythological or elemental imagery that returns us to a preoccupation with the Imaginary. The difference and diversity in question thus seems more akin to the polymorphous perversity of the pre-Oedipal child than to the metonymic displacements of desire in the symbolic order. The 'new bisexuality' in particular seems ultimately an imaginary closure that enables the subject effortlessly to shift from masculine to feminine subject positions. In the end, then, the contradictions of Cixous's discourse can be shown to be contained and resolved within the secure haven of the Imaginary. Her supreme disregard for 'patriarchal' logic is not after all an indication of her Barthesian concern for the liberation of the reader, though at first glance Barthes's description of readerly jouissance might seem strikingly appropriate to our experience of Cixous's texts:

Imagine someone (a kind of monsieur Teste in reverse) who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by simple discard of that old spectre: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive in the face of Socratic irony (leading the interlocutor to the supreme disgrace: self-contradiction) and legal terrorism (how much penal evidence is based on a psychology of consistency!)… Now this anti-hero exists: he is the reader of the text at the moment he takes his pleasure.

The difference between the jouissance of the Barthesian reader and Cixous's text is that whereas the former signals absolute loss, a space in which the subject fades to nothing, the latter will always finally gather up its contradictions within the plenitude of the Imaginary.

Power, ideology, politics

Cixous's vision of feminine/female writing as a way of re-establishing a spontaneous relationship to the physical jouissance of the female body may be read positively, as a utopian vision of female creativity in a truly non-oppressive and non-sexist society. Indeed a marked emphasis on the Imaginary is common in utopian writing. In 1972, for example, Christiane Rochefort published a powerful feminist utopian novel, Archaos ou le jardin étincelant, which in its narrative mode exhibits striking parallels to Cixous's preoccupation with the Imaginary as a utopian solution to the problem of desire.

Utopian thought has always been a source of political inspiration for feminists and socialists alike. Confidently assuming that change is both possible and desirable, the utopian vision takes off from a negative analysis of its own society in order to create images and ideas that have the power to inspire to revolt against oppression and exploitation. Influenced by Frankfurt School theorists such as Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, Arnhelm Neusüss has shown that anti-utopian arguments tend to be advanced from the right as part of a strategy aiming at the neutralization or recuperation of the revolutionary contents of the utopian dream. The most pernicious and widespread of the various anti-utopian arguments described by Neusüss is the one we might call the 'realist' approach. While tending towards rationalism in its underestimation of the possible political impact of human desire, the 'realist' position also objects to the contradictory nature of many utopias: there is no point in taking them seriously, the argument goes, since they are so illogical that anybody could tell that they would never work in real life anyway.

Rejecting this position, Neusüss sees the contradictions embodied by so many utopias as a justification of their social critique: signalling the repressive effects of the social structures that gave rise to the utopia in the first place, its gaps and inconsistencies indicate the pervasive nature of the authoritarian ideology the utopian thinker is trying to undermine. If Neusüss is right, the utopian project will always be marked by conflict and contradiction. Thus, if we choose to read Cixous as a utopian feminist, at least some of the contradictory aspects of her texts may be analysed as structured by the conflict between an already contradictory patriarchal ideology and the utopian thought that struggles to free itself from that patriarchal stranglehold. But if it is true that her contradictions are finally gathered up into the homogenizing space of the Imaginary, then they are more likely also to constitute a flight from the dominant social reality.

In a critique of Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, himself a vigorous defender of utopianism, describes Brown's utopian ideal as an effort towards the 'restoration of original and total unity: unity of male and female, father and mother, subject and object, body and soul—abolition of the self, of mine and thine, abolition of the reality principle, of all boundaries'. While a positive effort towards abolishing existing repressive structures, Brown's Cixouslike cultivation of the pleasure principle is for Marcuse unsatisfactory precisely because it is located exclusively within the Imaginary:

The roots of repression are and remain real roots; consequently, their eradication remains a real and rational job. What is to be abolished is not the reality principle; not everything, but such particular things as business, politics, exploitation, poverty. Short of this recapture of reality and reason Brown's purpose is defeated.

It is just this absence of any specific analysis of the material factors preventing women from writing that constitutes a major weakness of Cixous's utopia. Within her poetic mythology, writing is posited as an absolute activity of which all women qua women automatically partake. Stirring and seductive though such a vision is, it can say nothing of the actual inequities, deprivations and violations that women, as social beings rather than as mythological archetypes, must constantly suffer.

Marcuse's insistence on the need to recapture reason and reality for the utopian project is a timely one. In her eagerness to appropriate imagination and the pleasure principle for women, Cixous seems in danger of playing directly into the hands of the very patriarchal ideology she denounces. It is, after all, patriarchy, not feminism, that insists on labelling women as emotional, intuitive and imaginative, while jealously converting reason and rationality into an exclusively male preserve. Utopias, then, challenge us both on the poetic and the political level. It is therefore understandable that, while acknowledging the rhetorical power of Cixous's vision, feminists should nevertheless want to examine its specific political implications in order to discover exactly what it is we are being inspired to do.

But is it justifiable to force Cixous's writing into a political straitjacket, particularly when, as she argues, she is concerned less with politics than with poetry?

I would lie if I said that I am a political woman, not at all. In fact, I have to assemble the two words, political and poetic. Not to lie to you, I must confess that I put the accent on the poetic. I do it so that the political does not repress, because the political is something cruel and hard and so rigorously real that sometimes I feel like consoling myself by crying and shedding poetic tears.

The distance posited here between the political and the poetic is surely one that feminist criticism has consistently sought to undo. And though Cixous seems to be claiming 'poetic' status for her own texts, this does not prevent her from writing directly about power and ideology in relation to feminist politics. According to Cixous, ideology is a 'kind of immense membrane that envelops everything. A skin that we must know is there even if it covers us like a net or a closed eyelid'. This view of ideology as total closure parallels Kate Millett's vision of it as a monolithic unity, and suffers from exactly the same defects. How could we ever discover the nature of the ideology that surrounds us if it were entirely consistent, without the slightest contradiction, gap or fissure that might allow us to perceive it in the first place? Cixous's image of ideology recreates the closure of the mythological universe in which she constantly seeks refuge from the contradictions of the material world. When Catherine Clément accuses Cixous of speaking at a non-political level, she pinpoints precisely this problem in Cixous's work:

C[atherine Clément]. I must admit that your sentences are devoid of reality for me, except if I take what you say in a poetic sense. Give me an example…. Your level of description is one where I don't recognize any of the things I think in political terms. It's not that it's 'false', of course not. But it's described in terms which seem to me to belong to the level of myth or poetry; it all indicates a kind of desiring, fictive, collective subject, a huge entity which alternately is free and revolutionary or enslaved, asleep or awake…. Those are not subjects existing in reality.

Equally disturbing is Cixous's discourse on power. In an interview in La Revue des sciences humaines, she distinguishes between one 'bad' and one 'good' kind of power:

I would indeed make a clear distinction when it comes to the kind of power that is the will to supremacy, the thirst for individual and narcissistic satisfaction. That power is always a power over others. It is something that relates back to government, control, and beyond that, to despotism. Whereas if I say 'woman's powers', first it isn't one power any longer, it is multiplied, there is more than one (therefore it is not a question of centralization—that destroys the relation with the unique, that levels everything out) and it is a question of power over oneself, in other words of a relation not based on mastery but on availability [disponibilité].

Both kinds of power are entirely personal and individual: the struggle against oppression seems to consist in a lame effort to affirm a certain heterogeneity of woman's powers (a heterogeneity belied by the singular of 'woman'), which in any case seems to come down to claiming that a strong woman can do what she likes. In French, the term disponibilité carries a heavy bourgeois-liberal heritage, partly because of its central status in the works of André Gide. To be 'available' can thus imply a certain egoistic desire to be 'ready for anything', not to be bogged down in social and interpersonal obligations. Cixous's global appeal to 'woman's powers' glosses over the real differences among women, and thus ironically represses the true heterogeneity of women's powers.

Cixous's poetic vision of writing as the very enactment of liberation, rather than the mere vehicle of it, carries the same individualist overtones. Writing as ecstatic self-expression casts the individual as supremely capable of liberating herself back into union with the primeval mother. For Cixous, women seem to relate to each other exclusively on a dualistic (I/you) pattern: as mothers and daughters, lesbian couples or in some variety of the teacher/student or prophet/disciple relationship. The paucity of references to a wider community of women or to collective forms of organization is not only conspicuous in the work of a feminist activist, but indicative of Cixous's general inability to represent the non-Imaginary, triangulated structures of desire typical of social relationships.

Given the individualist orientation of Cixous's theory, it is perhaps not surprising that some of her students should present her politics as a simple prolongation of her persona, as in Verena Andermatt Conley's account of Cixous's appearance at the University of Paris at Vincennes ('a school notorious for a certain regal squalor'):

Cixous used to enter the complex in a dazzling ermine coat whose capital worth most probably surpassed the means of many in the classroom. Her proxemics marked a progressive use of repression. As a replica of Bataille's evocation of Aztec ceremony, she surged from the context of the cheaply reinforced concrete of classroom shelters. She then became a surplus value and a zero-degree term, the sovereign center of a decorous, eminently caressive body where her politics splintered those of an archaic scene in which the king would have his wives circulate about him.

Ermine as emancipation: it is odd that the women of the Third World have been so ludicrously slow to take up Cixous's sartorial strategy.

For a reader steeped in the Anglo-American approach to women and writing, Hélène Cixous's work represents a dramatic new departure. In spite of the vicissitudes that the concept undergoes in her texts, writing for her is always in some sense a libidinal object or act. By enabling feminist criticism to escape from a disabling author-centred empiricism, this linking of sexuality and textuality opens up a whole new field of feminist investigation of the articulations of desire in language, not only in texts written by women, but also in texts by men.

As we have seen, a closer investigation of her work has to confront its intricate webs of contradiction and conflict, where a deconstructive view of textuality is countered and undermined by an equally passionate presentation of writing as a female essence. If these contradictions in the end can be seen to be abolished within the Imaginary, this in its turn raises a series of political problems for the feminist reader of Cixous: marred as much by its lack of reference to recognizable social structures as by its biologism, her work nevertheless constitutes an invigorating utopian evocation of the imaginative powers of women.

Mary Libertin (review date July-August 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Challenging the Language," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 2, No. 6, July-August, 1987, pp. 11, 14.

[In the following excerpt, Libertin provides a favorable review of The Newly Born Woman.]

Those who are unfamiliar with Hélène Cixous's "Laugh of the Medusa" or with the excerpts from "Sorties" in Signs or in Marks and de Courtivron's New French Feminisms will want to read her complete essay, in addition to Catherine Clément's essay, "The Guilty One," along with their concluding dialogue, "Exchange," in the translation of this 1975 feminist classic, La Jeune Née (The Newly Born Woman). This book contains an exceptional introductory essay, "Tarantella of Theory," by Sandra Gilbert, which prepares the Anglo-American reader for this radical text by stunning us with the depth of rage and desire in writers from Dickinson to Rich and by fending off objections to possible charges of essentialism and hyperbole. Gilbert correctly shows that écriture feminine is fundamentally a political strategy that "redress[es] the wrongs of culture through a revalidation of the rights of nature." Catherine Clément rivets the reader with her post-Lacanian explanation of how women are in the "imaginary zone" that culture creates for what it excludes, and she notes that what is at stake in history is "the whole evaluation of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic function." Clement shows that the role of the hysteric is "indeed, what keeps the very history of psychoanalysis going" and that the hysteric and the sorceress "are old and worn-out figures, awakened only to throw off their shackles." Indeed, at the end of this critique of women's place in psychoanalysis, we find that these figures no longer exist. Cixous's posthysterical text leads the reader through the rebirth of women into a utopia.

In this utopia, the écriture feminine, women have been borne out of hysteria, and they remember what has been repressed. They are unafraid and laughing. As Cixous explains, "Everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds." Bisexual, the newly born woman "displac[es] and reviv[es] the question of difference." Bisexuality is "the location within oneself of the presence of both sexes, evident and insistent in different ways according to the individual, the nonexclusion of difference or of a sex, and starting with this 'permission' one gives oneself, the multiplication of the effects of desire's inscription on every part of the body and the other body." Readers will be borne upon Cixous's flight through the "dawn of phallocentrism"—the rewriting or appropriation of texts of the past, from the Greeks through Shakespeare, from Freud through Joyce. As Cixous tells Clément, "this is a high point in the history of women." This fine translation provides a classic example.

R. R. (review date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Newly Born Woman, in Poetics Today, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, pp. 670-71.

[In the positive review below, the critic discusses the central themes of The Newly Born Woman.]

[The Newly Born Woman] represents the new French feminist theoretical movement today. Its authors explore through readings of historical, literary and psychoanalytic accounts, what is hidden and repressed in culture, veiled structures of language and society that have determined the woman's place in society and culture. In part one of the book, "The Guilty One," Clement provides an analysis of "images of women," especially images of the sorceress and the hysteric, as exemplary female figures. In part two, "Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays," Cixous elaborates the imaginings of liberations as well as theories of the phallocratic, patriarchal hierarchization that has led to the need for liberation. In part three, "Exchange," the authors collaborate in a dialogue which illuminates differences and similarities in their thinking. The emphasis here lies on the need of silenced women to find an outlet for their expressive drives, in cry, screams and dances of desire. Feminist theory takes here a direction of biological essentialism implied in Cixous's concept of feminine writing and to which some American and French feminists have objected. Although Cixous herself repudiates the notion of consistent sexual essences, we see here an attempt to reverse the hierarchy of mind/body that has repressed the female by identifying woman and (passive or dangerous) nature. Body is valorized over mind. Another central notion in this work is that of the displacement of woman, a person who has no where. Cixous's thought is transmitted through complex metaphors such as "writing the body," or her view of jouissance as a fusion of the erotic, the mystical and the political. Coming into writing is seen as a source of jouissance. Women's words, traditionally relegated to the margins, are inevitably the signs of the repressed, hieroglyphs of an absence striving to become a presence. The re-placement of the displaced is the dream of a transformed language and literature, of a new writing. The dream of a transformed world, a dream shared by Cixous and Clément, as well as by their female precursors (Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath and others) is fully depicted and considered in this book. The vocabulary used here reflects the cultural milieu of Paris in the mid-seventies. The concepts and terminology are nourished on a mixture of structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis. To facilitate its deciphering, the book includes an introduction written by Sandra M. Gilbert and a glossary of terms.

Elizabeth Wright and Dianne Chisholm (review date April 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Newly Born Woman, in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 418-19.

[Below, Wright and Chisholm offer a favorable assessment of The Newly Born Woman, stating that "this is an important book, which transgresses the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose."]

The general thesis of [The Newly Born Woman] is that if women are going to take part in history they must write themselves into it. One of the ways of entering this arena as subjects speaking for themselves is to write their story. The problem is that the dominant culture is masculine, and since they cannot create stories out of nowhere, they have to draw on the masculine culture. Yet even in doing so and in taking up the feminine subject positions that men construct in their literature, women will inevitably tell their own story and thus chart a different history, politics, and economics. This history will emerge through their writing and not by virtue of any biological essentialism.

The book is divided into three parts: a first part (The Guilty One') written by Catherine Clément; a second part ('Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays') by Hélène Cixous; and a final part ('Exchange') staging a dialogue between the two.

Catherine Clément begins with a discussion of women as inscribed in a series of men's texts (Freud, Michelet, Flaubert), in which the women appear as hysterics and sorceresses. While these writers see woman's position as symptomatic (Freud), marginal (Michelet), or aesthetic (Flaubert), the women themselves understand their own ideological repression when they write as hysterics and sorceresses. A second section of this first part develops the position of 'the guilty one' as the daughter who has no place in the Œdipal constellation of the family, consisting as it does of mother, father, and son. While witches were able to exist as a marginal class they could live on the outskirts of society, but once there are no margins and there is only family, hospital, or asylum, the daughter is trapped and has no institutional place to which she might belong. Clément's conclusion, her manifesto, is that women can neither continue to take up this marginal subject position nor adopt the male paradigm. Women writers must go further if they are to reach the position of the 'post-hysterical subject', further even than taking up the sorceress as a symbol of female liberation, as some writers have done (one thinks of Fay Weldon's recently-televised novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil), not content to remain in the realm of magic realism, but able to move out into a world of social realism.

Whereas Catherine Clément feels that women must identify with the hysteric and the sorceress, Hélène Cixous wants to identify with the heroic female in fiction but can find only male heroes. In Part II she elaborates on her famous essay, 'The Laugh of the Medusa' (a mockery of male castration-anxiety), her question being 'Why haven't women written?'. Her answer is that the girl in the Œdipal family is expected to sacrifice libido, maternal love, and desire for self-knowledge, without gaining any symbolic compensation (no father's name). In literary history she has neither models nor poetic subjects. Since male heroes are not acceptable, women must either write a story which rehabilitates the mother or go to the male classics which offer masculine women characters and feminine male characters (Kleist's Penthesilea and Achilles, Shake-speare's Cleopatra and Antony). As the female libidinal economy is never discussed, it has to be invented/written, showing how the female repressed gives endlessly without debt, whereas the male (capitalist) economy does nothing but accumulate.

Part III is an exchange between two feminisms, that of a poet-academic (Cixous) and that of a socialist intellectual (Clément), who comment self-reflexively on their kind of discourse to each other and discuss which is more effective for feminism. Cixous argues that the 'hero' of women's writing in the twentieth century is the hysteric, while Clément maintains that women must act collectively and not heroicize the hysteric.

La Jeune Née means three things: 'newly-born woman' ('Là je une nais'), but also a pun referring to a feminine writing outlaw (La Genet), and a non-existing feminine subject ('la je n'est'). In the end, even though the two writers do not agree on the means to the end, they do agree that in general the route should be one of writing rebelliously (the hysteric), thereby bringing a feminine subject into existence and history (that is, newly born). This is an important book, which transgresses the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, and should be obligatory reading both for female and for male subjects.

Deborah Jenson (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Coming to Reading Hélène Cixous," in "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 183-96.

[Jenson edited "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays and contributed to it the essay excerpted below. In the following, she provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Cixous's works collected in the volume.]

In Hélène Cixous's 1976 essay "Coming to Writing," a remarkable "capitalist-realist superuncle," an "Anti-other in papaperson," rehashes the sober facts of the narrator's failure to allow herself to be captured within a recognizable literary tradition: "We think you're here," he says, "and you're there. One day we tell ourselves: this time we've got her, it's her for sure. This woman is in the bag. And we haven't finished pulling the purse strings when we see you come in through another door." Today, in the 1990s, Cixous's writing has become a part of recognizable literary history. But her texts still manage to lead the expectant reader on a chase—and not only the capitalist-realist super-reader, but the other reader, the one who is willing to accompany the narrator on her path to writing. "Am I here?" the reader might ask, "or am I there? And what is in that bag?" Pursuing the elusive author not only in her trapdoor escapes into the new, but in her wanderings back into the fairytale forest of the familiar, the reader strays deeper and deeper into the question of how to read one's way to writing …

"Coming to Writing" and Other Essays groups together much of Cixous's work in the essay form from 1976 to 1989. The collection's coherence rests less in any one thematic than in the development of Cixous's readings of artistic sources—literature, opera, and painting—over the years, and in the way her writing changes according to the nature of her readings. The style of "Coming to Writing," an essay which followed "The Laugh of the Medusa" by less than a year, is exuberant, polemical, filled with wordplay and parodic inventions rooted in the works of the "masters" (Freud's lecture on "Femininity," for instance, becomes "Requiemth Lecture on the Infeminitesimal"). Here sexual difference is directly explored in personal terms, and in opposition to certain cultural, psychoanalytic, religious, and political sources. In comparison, "Clarice Lispector: The Approach," from 1979, shows the influence of Lispector's work in its strikingly meditative tone. Elements from Cixous's earlier work are approached here with a simple, poetic, and ultimately philosophical vocabulary. Ironically, this pared-down vocabulary may be more opaque for the American reader than the complex wordplay of "Coming to Writing." The subject of sexual difference is difficult to locate in a line like this one from the beginning of the essay: "Loving the true of the living, what seems ungrateful to narcissus eyes, the nonprestigious, the non-immediate, loving the origin, interesting oneself personally with the impersonal, with the animal, with the thing." And yet, through a careful reading of the subsequent text, one comes equipped with new resources to the question formulated without fanfare in the final passage: "And woman?" The text is structured like an enigma.

The third and fourth essays in this collection, "Tancredi Continues" and "The Last Painting or the Portrait of God," were both published in 1983. They show Cixous's interest in the sources and motivating forces of artistic work in genres not limited to writing. Unlike much literary work on the arts in the United States, however, Cixous's interest in music and the visual arts remains tied to the figurative, to the language of the story in its different vocabularies. "The Last Painting or the Portrait of God" takes as its point of departure Clarice Lispector's fascination with the instant ("Each thing has an instant in which it is. I want to take possession of the thing's is.") to explore differences between the gestures of writing and painting. One such difference lies in the possibility of "fidelity" to the instant, a concept that could be confused with realism but that is more accurately approached as the problem of making figurative the "vision" of the writer. What the painter makes visible, the writer offers to the imaging capacities of the reader: "I am the awkward sorceress of the invisible: my sorcery is powerless to evoke, without the help of your sorcery. Everything I evoke depends on you, depends on your trust, your faith." "Fidelity" is also illustrated here in terms of the cultural permission (or lack of it) to "contemplate a woman's real nudity" in writing.

The other piece from 1983 is "Tancredi Continues," a fragment of a longer, unpublished fiction called Jerusalem Continues, which Cixous wrote in 1981–82. This is her reading of Tasso's epic Jerusalem Delivered and Gioacchino Rossini's opera version, Tancredi. The intensely poetic language of this text condenses several kinds of struggles and several kinds of bodies into one space: the poetic space of contested Jerusalem. Two camps fight over (the gender of) this "beloved body." On one level they are religious/national camps (this is one of the first works to reveal Cixous's growing interest in the problematic of nationalities), but Cixous's use of the startling gender portrayals of Tasso's epic highlights them above all as the camps of the two sexes, in their lethal, passionate dispute over the masculinity or femininity of the body of the beloved.

The last two essays, from 1989, represent Cixous's most recent work on Clarice Lispector. The brief "By the Light of an Apple" serves as a prelude to the final essay in this collection, "The Author in Truth." It plays on the title of a novel by Clarice Lispector, The Apple in the Dark, to convey Lispector's illuminating force: she is the "Watch-woman, night-light of the world." Cixous compares Lispector with Kafka, Rilke, Rimbaud, and Heidegger, but only on conditional feminine terms: if Kafka had been a woman, Rilke a Jewish Brazilian, Rimbaud a mother, Heidegger the author of a Romance of the Earth. Despite the murmurings of philosophers "in her forests," Lispector is a writer who "knows nothing," because her work is not the stasis of cognition; it is the journey of "re-cognition." As such, her work "puts us back in the worldschool" of unceasing, "equal" attention. For Cixous, the political quality of Lispector's work lies in the absence of a hierarchy of artistic objects. ("Political" in a qualified sense, clearly; Cixous asks the question whether The Hour of the Star is a political text, and answers: "Subreptitiously. If there is a politics of spirituality.")

In "The Author in Truth," Cixous plunges into the question of identification between reader, author, and character. She proceeds with all the complexity of Bakhtinian analysis of speech acts, but without a specialized theoretical vocabulary. The class position of the character Macabea is at the heart of the identificatory labyrinth in The Hour of the Star: "We, character, reader, author, circulate between 'I am not her,' and 'I could be her,' as we advance along the most powerful path of meditation that we can take in thinking of the other." Here we find echoing in "The Author in Truth" the same question of the reader's position that reverberates in "Coming to Writing" and Other Essays as a whole.

The opening paragraphs of the title essay locate the problematic of reading as a heartbeat-like trace audible inside as well as outside the text. The initial "I" who narrates is the child-reader who scans the Face—the Face as the maternal geography that is the signature of life for the infant. The child's act of reading is as inevitable as her primal attraction to the (m)other: the other signifies; the child reads. Reading the Face is necessary for the child in order to keep the connection with the other alive, and in fact to keep the other alive at all, since otherness denotes existence in relation to the subject. The Face serves also as a beacon of light that makes it possible to name the shadowy world around the child. In the relationship to this other, the child-narrator is at once the most helpless and most powerful of readers—depending on the other, and creating the other. Hélène Cixous pointed out in the recent colloquium "Readings of Sexual Difference" at the International College of Philosophy that in the act of reading, one chooses one's subject of reading; and in doing so, one becomes the author of the reading. So reading is a not-quite-authorized coming to writing. In this way, the reader of "Coming to Writing" coincides with the elusive narrator on her dizzying trail through the forest.

The narrator of "Coming to Writing" is herself unable to authorize her writing until the "souffle"—most simply, the breath, the intake of life, but also the current of inspiration—sets her body in motion and inscribes her desire in the flesh. By then, it is too late to turn back; the body will function as a source. Cixous has described the womanbody as the "place from which": from which birth occurs, metaphorically and organically, from which the passage is made from the inside to the outside, from which a new body emerges to read otherness in its turn. In this text Cixous's fascination with, and her gratitude for, sources, makes the question of writing into a celebration of its places of emission and its places of incorporation. On her journey to and through the "places from which," she sends a stream of correspondence, her "Letters from the Life-Watch," and other bodily chronicles.

To achieve her readings of life, Cixous practices a politics/poetics of attention articulated through her readings of the work of Clarice Lispector. Compared to "Coming to Writing," which is often as vigorous and wet as a newborn struggling for its first breath, or as a fish splashing in water, "Clarice Lispector: The Approach" is composed with philosophical restraint, panther steps, respect for the fragility of an egg. That is because the interventions of this essay are directed to a stage of life in which the urgency of reading the Face has been forgotten, and in which we allow what Cixous refers to as the media forcibly to read us, the erstwhile reader. "We are living in the time of the flat thought-screen, of newspaper-thinking, which does not leave time to think the littlest thing according to its living mode. We must save the approach that opens and leaves space for the other." In this jaded time we are, passively, the "other" of the advertising executive, for instance. By contrast, in the world-readings of Clarice Lispector, "names are hands she lays on space, with a tenderness so intense that at last smiles a face, o you."

This tender naming, and its ability to coax the face into bloom, is the product of a patience, a reserve, an attention, that Cixous characterizes as soul. "Soul" is one of many terms that are generally banished to the metaphysical broom closet these days but that Cixous gifts with a reincarnation, in the sense of a reconstituted relationship to the body. The soul for her is an ultrasensual substance: "The soul is the magic of attention. And the body of the soul is made from a fine, fine ultrasensual substance, so finely sensitive that it can pick up the murmur of every hatching, the infinitesimal music of particles calling to one another to compose themselves in fragrance." This reading-soul is inseparable from the experience of the senses, but it is not conflated with the senses: it is a sensory / sensual attention. A sensist capacity for reading. A sensualism of readings via the senses.

The reading-soul raises the question of the politics of poetic rhetoric. Cixous takes on the trope of the rose: Is a woman a rose or is a woman a woman? Do we know a woman best as a rose or as a woman? When does a rose become a mask for woman, and vice versa? This touches on the question of the mimetic relation between text and object, which, like the question of masculinity or femininity in its relation to the body, is not easily resolved in Cixous's work, or in Lispector's work. (Lispector's story "The Imitation of the Rose" can be read, for instance, as the mad radicality of mimetic structure in the religious classic The Imitation of Christ when applied to the housewife and her sanctum, the domestic environment.) The attention Lispector applies to the organic is not so much a transformational logic as a respect that explores the form of its object, that tries to greet each "species" with an attention of a similar "species." And so when she considers that archipoetic object, the rose, she might examine its elements by replacing it with a turtle, a cockroach, an oyster; whereas Rilke "could replace it only with a unicorn," or "in lacework."

But what prevents this approach from turning into a mimetic code is the strict ambiguity of Cixous's use of terms such as "species" in the first place. In "The Author in Truth" she writes, "Yes, Clarice's project is to make the other human subject appear equal—and this is positive—to the roach. Each to her own species." The roach (which is far from anthropomorphized in The Passion) and the human subject as mimetic partners? Clearly, realism is not at the bottom of this mystery. Cixous suggests a comparison of Gertrude Stein's approach to the rose with Lispector's. Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose …" is subversive "hyperlinguistics." Through repetition, Stein reveals "the fact that the signifier always represses." Lispector, on the other hand, presents a "story" of the rose, of which "'I write you this facsimile' is one of the definitions." But there are always further definitions of the rose (other than that of the inevitable facsimilitude of representation) which have to do with the rose's organic life. In the end, imitation in Cixous's work has less to do with mimesis than with the mimosa, the flower that takes its name from the Latin botanical term mimus.

Listening with the "ultrasensual substance of the soul," the writer reads the object into existence. And so woman is represented not only as the story of a historical, literary facsimile, with which all feminists are familiar, a rose-text, but as a body to be explored. This body belongs to character, author, and reader. Cixous rediscovers Lispector through the eyes of Macabea, for instance, and catches a glimpse of her own double: "Reading this narrative I sometimes almost forgot her, I did forget her. Later I remembered. And for one second, through Macabea's eyes, I saw Clarice Lispector heavily made up, coming out of the salon where having her hair done had cost a month's worth of sausage sandwiches. Or was it myself I saw?"

The reader author-izes a reading, the writer reads woman into writing, the reader becomes writer, the writer becomes reader—in which direction are we going? In French, the word sens signifies both "meaning" and "direction." And in French, the titles of the first three essays in this book all contain terms of movement that can be read in more than one meaning-direction at a time. "La Venue à l'écriture" hinges on the various possible meanings of la venue: the path of growth or development, the coming (as in "the advent"), or the (feminine) one who has arrived. (La venue is also a homophone of l'avenue.) The syntax of "L'Approche de Clarice Lispector" suggests either "Clarice Lispector's Approach," or, on the contrary, "Approaching Clarice Lispector." It could even be read as "The Approach—from (the Point of Departure of) Clarice Lispector." In "Tancredi Continues," the lack of an object for the verb "continues" leaves the reader to wonder: what, where, and whom does Tancredi continue to do, go, and be? Does all this circulation simply lead the reader in the direction of movement for the sake of avoiding stasis, and if so, what does this have to do with "truth," as in "The Author in Truth?"

"Truth" is a term of movement as it relates to the constantly self-displacing yet ultimately irreducible nature of the author's signature, the trace of the body writing. For Cixous, the signature of the author tells the whole story of The Hour of the Star and its multiply impoverished heroine, Macabea: "I, Rodrigo S.M., I am in truth Clarice Lispector put in parentheses, and only the author '(in truth Clarice Lispector)' can approach this beginning of a woman. This is the impossible truth. It is the inexpressible, indemonstrable truth, which can be said only in parentheses … It is the truth, a woman, beating like a heart, in the parenthesis of life." In the parenthetical truth of the creation of the female character by the female author within the male narrator lies a mystery: "The identity of the 'I' who cannot answer." In witnessing existence in the parentheses of the text, Cixous seeks freedom from the confining authorizations of names: "We are much more than what our own name authorizes us and obligates us to believe we are … We are possible. Anyone. We need only avoid closing up the parentheses in which our 'why-nots' live."

Our "why-nots" are often the unprivileged, who are often women. In "Coming to Writing," Cixous describes an idealized vision of what a writing-voyage would be for the elite: "for this elite, the gorgeous journey without horizon, beyond everything, the appalling yet intoxicating excursion toward the never-yet-said." But for woman, devoured by "the jealous Wolf, your ever-insatiable grandmother," there is the "vocation of the swallowed up, voyage of the scybalum." In a social structure hungry to consume them, women are limited to the voyage of the digestive tract, to literal incorporation. The world of the fairy tale is a maze of lost paths filled with dangerous encounters: "For the daughters of the housewife: the straying into the forest." In this forest, the wolf is the site of the legendary struggle with the enigma: "Instead of the great enigmatic duel with the Sphinx, the dangerous questioning addressed to the body of the Wolf: What is the body for? Myths end up having our hides. Logos opens its great maw, and swallows us whole."

But in the writing-voyage, the (domestic) forest resonates as more than the haunted site of the fairy tale. It is also the paradigm for the "Claricewege," Cixous's adaptation of the Heideggerian Holzwege to Lispector's writing: "Thinking according to Clarice, I immediately come to think of Heidegger and his Holzwege: 'Trails in the wood, trails that lead nowhere, that trail.'" The Holzweg has, significantly, been used to pinpoint the end of philosophy, the point at which it no longer moves ahead. Louis Althusser claimed that the only possible contemporary philosophy would be theoretical discourse on philosophy, because philosophy had become limited to "a path leading nowhere, a 'Holzweg.'" But for Cixous, the Claricean Holzweg allows the reader to live the path as source. "The Clarice-voice gives us the ways. A fear takes hold of us. Calls us: 'There are nothing but ways.' Gives-takes our hand. A deeply moved, clairvoyant fear—we take it. Leads us. We make ways." The trails that trail give the gift of the present in its infinity of possible forms; they teach vulnerability to "the two great lessons of living: slowness and ugliness." Entering the forest of the Claricewege, the writing body is the subject of a movement that is not logomotion but love of motion, trust of fear, trust of slowness. In the dark trails, we encounter Hélène Cixous, a philosopher—in Red Riding Hood's clothing—of an ongoing feminine tradition. She helps the reader make her way to the question: What is the reader in truth?

Translating the resonant poetics of Hélène Cixous's work into anything but her particular language—which is not French, not German, but poetry—is a difficult (Promethean?) task in which the reader must participate for full effect. The gathering connotative force of Cixous's wordplay resists any word-for-word equivalence.

And no truly appropriate explanatory apparatus has ever been found for poetry. Endnotes are one way of documenting the necessarily unstable process of translation, which Barbara Johnson has called "an exercise in violent approximation." However, since endnotes do interrupt the musical flow of the text, I have tried to minimize their intervention.

Among previous translators of her work, Betsy Wing in The Newly Born Woman chose to render words that were "too full of sense" in the original through "a process of accretion" in the translation. Yet the explicit presentation of a series of terms in answer to the poetic multiplicity of one term bypasses the relationship between the reader and the French text, in which several meaning may be called into action at once or allowed to lie dormant. The present translators have more frequently chosen a one-to-one relationship of the English terms to the French, although these terms may function simply as signposts to other possible readings. In the end, it is hoped the reader of this collection will accept the author's invitation to lend it a little "soul."

Morag Shiach (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Politics and Writing," in Hélène Cixous: A Politics of Writing, Routledge, 1991, pp. 6-37.

[In the following excerpt, Shiach analyzes the development of Cixous's ideas about the relationships between writing, subjectivity, sexuality, and social change.]

Despite the range of her fictional and dramatic texts, it is as a literary theorist that Hélène Cixous is best known in the English-speaking world. Her essays on writing and sexual difference have been a crucial point of reference for feminist theorists and critics, and her insistence on the transformative and broadly political dimensions of writing has constituted an important challenge to the unfocused aestheticism of much of literary studies. In this [essay] I will analyse the development of Cixous's ideas about the relations between writing and subjectivity, sexuality, and social change. Many of Cixous's arguments are developed in the context of close reading of literary texts, and I have thus returned to such texts where it seems helpful to do so, in order to identify the specificity of Cixous's readings.

Cixous's theorization of the politics of writing begins with an examination of the philosophical, political, and literary bases of patriarchy. In 'Sorties', an essay published in 1975, Cixous describes the set of hierarchical oppositions which, she argues, have structured western thought, and governed its political practice. She cites oppositions such as 'culture/nature'; 'head/heart'; 'form/matter'; 'speaking/writing', and relates them to the opposition between 'man' and 'woman'. In each case, her critique of these rigid oppositions does not amount simply to an argument against dualism but rather to a political and philosophical rejection of the dialectical relation between each of these 'couples', which privileges one term of the opposition:

Theory of culture, theory of society, symbolic systems in general—art, religion, family, language—it is all developed while bringing the same schemes to light. And the movement whereby each opposition is set up to make sense is the movement through which the couple is destroyed. A universal battlefield. Each time, a war is let loose. Death is always at work. ('Sorties')

Cixous does not invent these systems of oppositions: she reads them off a series of literary, mythical, and philosophical texts, finding their purest articulation in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. The danger, for Cixous, in such philosophical and social categories, lies in their absolute dependence on strategies of power and exclusion. Each couple is based on the repression of one of its terms, yet both terms are locked together in violent conflict. Without 'nature', 'culture' is meaningless, yet culture must continually struggle to negate nature, to dominate and control it, with obviously deadly results.

Cixous's earliest recognition of the effects of such hierarchical opposition took place in relation to the mechanisms of colonialism. Her experience of French rule in Algeria led her to identify a basic structure of power: the Arab population was both necessary to, and despised by, the French colonial power. Algeria, she argues, could never have been 'France': it was perceived as different and as dangerous. Yet the mechanisms of colonial rule necessitated its identification as 'French', as tied in a relation of dependence to the French state. Cixous thus identifies colonialism as a prime example of a dualist structure of unequal power, visited by the constant threat of violence. Both sides of the opposition are locked together, and the autonomy of one—in this case, Algeria—must constantly be negated by the other.

Such dialectical structures, Cixous argues, also dominate the formation of subjectivity, and thus of sexual difference. Cixous uses Hegel's 'master/slave' dialectic as the paradigm of a form of subjectivity which is both limited and destructive: 'a subjectivity that experiences itself only when it makes its law, its strength, its mastery felt'. Here, subjectivity requires the recognition of an Other, from whom the individual differentiates him- or herself. Yet this recognition is experienced as threatening, and the Other is immediately repressed, so that the subject can return to the security and certainty of self-knowledge: 'the dialectic, the subject's going out into the other in order to come back to itself, this entire process … is, in fact, what is commonly at work in our everyday banality'.

This structure of subjectivity is related to the other 'couples' which Cixous has described: particularly 'man/woman'. Woman, within a patriarchal social and cultural formation, becomes figured, represented, as the Other, necessary to the constitution and recognition of identity, but always threatening to it. Sexual difference is thus locked into a structure of power, where difference, or otherness, is tolerated only when repressed. The movement of the Hegelian dialectic depends on an inequality of power between the two terms of opposition. Such inequality is then understood as the very basis of desire, that relation to the Other that is organized round the fear of castration, of loss and of otherness: 'It is inequality that triggers desire, as a desire—for appropriation. Without inequality, without struggle, there is inertia…'. Thus is constructed a desire that, Cixous argues, offers women the choice between 'castration' and 'decapitation': between internalization of a structure of desire based on loss, or deadly violence.

Cixous's identification of this strategy of sexual differentiation is derived from the consideration of literary texts, of cultural representations. The story of the Sleeping Beauty seems to her typical of this structure of desire. The woman is represented as sleeping, as possessed of negative subjectivity, until her encounter with male subjectivity, with the kiss. The kiss gives her existence, but only within a mechanism that immediately subordinates her to the desire of 'the prince'. Cixous's reading of Joyce's Ulysses leads her to similar conclusions. Here the socio-cultural construction of women characters intersects with the structure of desire Cixous has described, to produce the figure of woman as confined to the marriage-bed, to childbirth, and to the death-bed: 'as if she were destined—in the distribution established by men … to be the nonsocial, nonpolitical, nonhuman half of the living structure'.

It is important, here, to recognize the complexity of the relations that Cixous describes between the figure of 'woman', and women as historical subjects. Her argument depends on the importance of literary, philosophical, and mythical discourse to the formation of subjectivity. Such discourses do not exhaust the possibilities of subjectivity for individual women, but they do provide the structures in terms of which such subjectivity must be negotiated. The description of the construction of the figure of 'woman', and of its relation to mechanisms of desire, is thus of more than academic, or even philosophical, interest for women: it is the space in which they are placed by culture, and against which they must negotiate their own subjectivity.

Cixous describes her own historical recognition of this fact. Having first identified herself in terms of a common struggle, against colonialism and oppression, she comes to recognize that her gender makes such identification with a shared historical struggle problematic: 'No longer can I identify myself simply and directly with Samson or inhabit my glorious characters. My body is no longer innocently useful to my plans … I am a woman'. She comes to see her own struggle as necessarily complicated by her gender, which cuts across available narratives of collective identity:

'We' struggle together, yes, but who is this 'we'? A man and beside him a thing, somebody … someone you are not conscious of, unless she effaces herself, acts the man, speaks and thinks that way. For a woman, what I am saying is trite. It has often been said. It is that experience that launched the front line of the feminist struggle in the U.S. and in France; discovering discrimination, the fundamental unconscious racism in places where, theoretically, it should not exist! A political irony …'

Cixous's strategies for transforming this dual, hierarchized structure of philosophical and political thought, and of cultural representations, are twofold. The first procedure amounts to a deconstructive reading, which is presented as a critique of the narrative of origins, of the 'Dawn of Phallocentrism'. This reading is intended to question the naturalness or inevitability of such structural hierarchies. The second involves an exploration of the subversive, and the political, possibilities of a writing practice that sets itself up in opposition to such cultural categorization: a writing practice that Cixous describes as 'feminine'.

Cixous's representation of her project relies heavily on spatial metaphor. It thus amounts not simply to description, but to a writing practice that depends on allusion, metaphorization, and intertextual reference. Cixous compares her attack on the origins of patriarchy to a mining of foundations: 'We are living in an age where the conceptual foundation of an ancient culture is in the process of being undermined by millions of a species of mole … never known before'. The actions of this mole include the unearthing of the myths that sustain the logic of patriarchy, undoing their 'naturalness', and opening up the energies buried within them. This image of burial, and of possible mining and reworking, is reminiscent of Freud's observations on female sexuality. Freud comments on the surprise of his belated discovery of a period in the development of female sexuality that precedes the Oedipal in the following archaeological terms:

Our insight into this early, pre-Oedipus phase in girls comes to us as a surprise, like the discovery in another field of the Minoan-Mycenean civilization behind the civilization of Greece.

Cixous's archaeological researches lead her to an engagement with the mythical narratives surrounding the figure of Electra, through which she aims to provide a deconstructive reading of the 'Dawn of Phallocentrism', as she explores the possibilities of mining beneath the fixed structures of hierarchical dualities. She is also concerned with origins, with the recapturing of plurality in the face of teleology, and with 'the Law'.

The Law is understood as an abstract structure of prohibition and exclusion, and Cixous dramatizes what she sees as the dominant relation to the Law within patriarchy, through a reading of Kafka's short story, 'Before the Law'. This story deals with a man who arrives before a doorway which gives access to the Law. When he arrives, the door is lying open, but the bearded doorkeeper convinces him that he cannot gain entry. Many years pass, as the man still stands in front of the door, apparently unable to enter. Eventually, however, 'before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper'. He asks the doorkeeper why no-one else has come to the door seeking entry to the Law. The doorkeeper replies, 'No-one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.' There had been no barrier, no exclusion, except in the man's own perception of his relation to the Law. The knowledge of this fact, however, will die with him. Cixous uses this story as a compelling metaphor for women's relation to patriarchy: a social structure in which women submit to the Law, and die of it. Like Kafka's hero, women under patriarchy redirect the power of which they are a source against themselves.

Cixous supports this analysis with a reading of the figure of Electra, as dramatized by Aeschylus and Sophocles. She starts with what might seem an unhelpfully teleological narrative: 'The Dawn of Phallocentrism' ('Sorties'). Cixous's analysis begins with a quotation from Freud's Moses and Monotheism:

it came about that the matriarchal social order was succeeded by the patriarchal one—which, of course, involved a revolution in the juridical conditions that had so far prevailed. An echo of this revolution still seems to be audible in The Oresteia of Aeschylus. But this turning from the mother to the father points in addition to a victory of intellectuality over sensuality—that is, an advance in civilization, since maternity is proved by the evidence of the senses while paternity is a hypothesis, based on an inference and a premiss.

Freud's argument about the development of patriarchy was not new: he was clearly indebted to the earlier theories of Bachofen, developed by Engels, which analysed the importance of this moment of transformation from matriarchy to patriarchy. Both writers had argued for the existence of an earlier social formation based on the principles of matriarchy, with Engels relating the development of patriarchy explicitly to the growth of private property. We do not, of course, have to understand such analyses of matriarchy as literally, or historically, true: we can read them instead as a mythological positing of origins, or as narratives that seek to represent the development of patriarchy as progress, a movement from the sensual to the spiritual, and thus as emblematic of civilization. Such narratives always risk, however, being read against the grain: that is to say, they can be read for the extent to which they make a structure other than patriarchy conceivable, and bring such a structure within the sphere of representation. We do not have to believe in the historical existence of matriarchy in order to make it sound like a good idea.

Cixous reads the Oresteia as a narrative of the formation of patriarchy. Seeing Orestes as placed at a turning point in history, Cixous focuses on the debate in the Eumenides over the relative claims of revenge for murder of a husband and murder of a mother. She draws attention to Apollo's ruling that 'the woman you call the mother of the child / is not the parent, just a nurse to the seed … / the man is the source of life', an account of reproduction that diminishes the gravity of matricide, and thus seems to license the development of patriarchal social relations.

Cixous's interest in the Oresteia, and in the figure of Electra, does not, however, lie simply in the ways in which it dramatizes the origins of patriarchy: her aim is not to reprimand Aeschylus. Instead, she wants to read what is repressed in this myth of origins, to recapture the violence, the excess, and the death, that are an inescapable part of this putting-in-place of patriarchy; her project in reading the Oresteia is to challenge the seamless teleology of the narrative, and its apparent equation with progress. She explores the importance of deceit: the ways in which Orestes' pretended death is elaborately set up and developed, particularly in Sophocles' text:

Under disguise and deviously hidden-hiding-disclosing in himself more than one nonhuman being, as being more than human, the shifty brother sets time ticking and exploded the feminine nucleus. ('Sorties')

This deceit is set alongside the disproportionate power given to the dead:

The dead-father, Agamemnon (was he ever anything other than dead, except the day he was killed? Clytemnestra asks, but no-one hears the question), is in the strongest position: the position of death.

Cixous is fascinated by the active role of the dead, and by the different relations Electra and Orestes develop with their dead father. Electra calls to him to return, and asks him to take pity, but Orestes tries to blackmail him, saying that in return for intervention Orestes will keep his father alive. This relation between Orestes and his father, implicated as it is with blackmail and with death, is represented by Cixous as paradigmatic of the relations of patriarchy:

In a certain way the father is always unknown. Coming from outside, he has to enter and give proof. Outsiders, absolutely other, strangers, ghosts, always capable of coming back…. Coming out of the earth to go back into the mother, into the palace, to reappropriate bodies and goods.

That is what is called civilization.

Progress, says Freud, whose logic thus expresses his self-interest in circular performances: 'Father, prefer me, so that feeling I am preferred, my self-confidence will grow so that I can call you "father" all the more loudly.'

About this progress in 'spirituality' Cixous is scathing, focusing on its deathly, tomb-like location, and on its negation of much of the energy that has circulated around the figure of Electra. Electra is seen by Cixous as the leader of the phallocrats: her voice is the loudest in the demand for the death of her mother, Clytaemnestra. As such, Cixous contrasts her with the one last Great Woman, the one no man could 'keep', the inalterable Helen, or Hélène, whose departure 'left her land chaos, clanging shields / companions tramping, bronze prows, men in bronze'. Yet Helen is banished from the text of the Oresteia, and only Electra remains as the source of disruption. Archphallocrat, she is none the less disruptive in her excess. She generates a kind of 'Electricity', which lightens up the twilight of matriarchy. She manifests an 'infernal libido', and nothing can silence her voice; although, of course, Aeschylus silences her effectively by simply dropping her from the play with her final line containing the ironic demand 'hear us'. Sophocles has Electra say, 'I will never cease my dirges and sorrowful laments', and this ceaselessness, Cixous argues, takes her outside the circuit of exchange between father and son, outside the Law.

Electra occupies an ambiguous space, stretched between inside and outside, in relation to the family and the Law. She is at the threshold, but unlike Kafka's anonymous man she is not silent. She delivers 'a stream of cries, that won't run out, torment's spring that won't go dry' ('Sorties'). She is compared by Cixous to the effects of yellow amber when rubbed—that is, to Electricity. She interacts with the Chorus, Clytaemnestra, Chrysothemis, 'light bodies, attracted by magnetic Electra: an intense system of exchange, attraction, particle loss fed by Electra'. Only Orestes is doggedly immune from the power of this electricity. Electra, Cixous argues, is both not woman and too much woman. She 'blazes the trail' to patriarchy, but in doing so generates energy and anger, which cannot easily be contained. Orestes recommends caution and silence, and struggles desperately to domesticate Electra.

The putting-in-place of patriarchy, which we can just as well understand as a metaphor for its continued operation, thus generates anger, excess, a voice that seems to escape control and instead goes underground, presumably to join the moles. The subjective and social 'splitting' this process involves is dramatized in the Oresteia, whose characters live their relation to the forms of patriarchy and matriarchy in their simultaneous presence:

In this time of reversal everything is two-faced: one face still looks towards and old order; one face envisages the new power. The promised cutting works away on the body of each one.

Clytaemnestra is pulled to the past, haunted by dreams. Orestes lives a doubly double life: having died and notdied, and being doubled by Pylades, his 'silent shadow'. This image of subjectivity torn between two cultural orders, disputing possession of the body, is one that will recur frequently in 'Sorties' as Cixous theorizes the political potential of writing within her own history.

Her deconstructive reading of the Oresteia leads Cixous to challenge the notion that Aeschylus simply reinforces the hierarchical opposition 'feminine/masculine'. After all, she argues, the Oresteia is a mixed and undecided site, wherein active and passive forces clash, without being absolutely attributed to sexual difference. We can see examples of this in some of the unexpected attributions of 'femininity' and 'masculinity' in the text: Agamemnon complaining that in his homecoming he is treated like a woman; or Clytaemnestra becoming the bull who gores Agamemnon according to Cassandra's prophecy. None the less, Cixous argues, there is an attempt at closure in the text, and one which seeks to eradicate the echoes of Electra's voice. The patriarchal order is set in place ('patriarchy—politicaleconomy—sexualeconomy—it has all sorted itself out since they checkmated those great screeching females') and the electricity disappears from the text.

In looking at this narrative of 'The Dawn of Phallocentrism,' then, Cixous sought to open out the myth of Electra. She wanted to undermine the naturalness of the narrative, to set in play the violence, excess, splitting, and death that surround the moment of transformation from matriarchy to patriarchy, or rather that reverberate beneath the structures of patriarchal social relations. There are no feminist heroines in these texts of antiquity (except perhaps Hélène), and Electra is certainly not held up as the ideal of femininity. She is, however, seen as the site of articulation of much that is excluded from accounts of subjectivity that are based on a relation of power over the other, and also as a troubling complexity in the mythic origins of patriarchy.

Cixous's deconstructive reading of the origins of patriarchy shows great awareness of her own embeddedness in such narratives: their power is precisely the point of her analysis. Yet as feminist critique the reading is often frustrating, leading to qualifications, tentative propositions, and ambiguous conclusions. The feeling of swimming in cultural mud is almost palpable, and it is with some relief that one turns to the other element of her strategy—the construction of an alternative practice of writing. As Cixous says: 'What I say has at least two sides and two aims: to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project.'

The first element of Cixous's theorization of the practice of feminine writing can be found in her discussion of alternative representations of sexual difference. She rejects the Freudian and Lacanian models, which she sees as condemning women to negativity in their privileging of the phallus as the organizing point of sexual identity and desire. Instead, she argues for the possibility of sustaining not as a denial of sexual difference, but as a lived recognition of plurality, of the simultaneous presence of masculinity and femininity within an individual subject. Such bisexuality is open to all subjects who can escape from the subjective and social effects of the dominant structures of desire. Yet, Cixous argues, it is of particular relevance to women, since they have been the greatest victims of patriarchy:

For historical reasons, at the present time it is woman who benefits from and opens up within this bisexuality beside itself, which does not annihilate differences but cheers them on, pursues them, adds more. ('Sorties')

Cixous further argues that writing is a privileged space for the exploration of such non-hierarchically arranged bisexuality. Writing, she believes, can be the site of alternative economies: it is not obliged simply to reproduce the system. This argument is developed in the context of close readings of a series of texts, by Kleist, Shakespeare, and Genet, which she sees as dramatizing the limitations and violence of the propre, a term suggesting propriety, property, and homogeneity, which is generally translated as 'the selfsame'. She favours texts that are excessive in their characterization, that undermine the fixed categories of sexual identity. Thus, for example, Kleist's Penthesilea, the drama of an Amazon queen, attracts Cixous's attention. She charts the unsettling of economies of war caused by the passionate love between Achilles and Penthesilea, and follows their relationship through to its catastrophic end: Penthesilea literally devours Achilles, consumes his flesh. Such violence, she argues, is both terrible and inevitable, revealing as it does the stakes invested in the economy of opposition and war.

From a commitment to the possibility of bisexuality, and its political importance for women, and a belief in the disruptive potential of writing, Cixous moves towards the production of a form of writing that would embody such bisexuality and operate in the interests of women. Her best-known statement of this project is contained in 'The Laugh of the Medusa'. This essay was published in 1975, in an issue of the journal L'Arc dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir. Much of the material in the essay is also contained in 'Sorties', but is presented in 'The Laugh of the Medusa' in more polemical fashion: most of the deconstructive argument is absent, leaving a seemingly less tentative, and perhaps less careful, but much more bracing version of her writing project. The rhetorical power of this essay is perhaps clearer in French, where a passage such as

Nous, les précoces, nous les refoulées de la culture, les belles bouches barrées de bâillons, pollen, haleines coupées, nous les labyrinthes, les échelles, les espaces foulés; les volées,—nous sommes 'noires' et nous sommes belles.

with its alliteration, its measured rhythm, its exploitation of the gendered nature of the French language, and its allusion to the 'Song of Songs' produces a more powerful effect than its English equivalent:

We, the precocious, we the repressed of culture, our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies—we are black and we are beautiful.

This essay has undoubtedly provoked strong reactions, and has been the focus of many of the frequent charges of 'essentialism': the claim that Cixous reduces women to an essence, specifically an anatomical essence, and thus negates the possibility of the very change which she seeks to promote. It is thus worth considering the dimensions of her argument in some detail.

'The Laugh of the Medusa' begins by explaining that Cixous is trying to explore what feminine writing 'will do'. She is not trying to analyse what women have actually written, nor is she describing a writing technique that is natural to, or inevitable for, women. Her tentativeness is an important part of her argument, despite its polemic. In 'Sorties' Cixous is very careful to distinguish her analysis of sexuality from what she sees as the essentialism of Freud or Ernest Jones. Their theories, she says, rely on the visible: on the presence or absence of the penis, or of an essential femininity. They are thus, she argues, 'voyeur's theories', tied to the metaphysics of presence. Instead, Cixous tries to locate sexual difference at the level of sexual pleasure, of jouissance. To some extent, this is clearly a strategic move. It removes any possibility of identifying femininity and masculinity with the certainties of anatomical difference. It also places sexual difference in the realm of the unknowable. Apart from Tiresias, a figure to whom Cixous will return in Le Nom d'Oedipe, no-one, after all, is in a position to speak definitively about the dimensions of feminine and masculine jouissance. The insistence on libido as the location of sexual difference thus offers to Cixous the possibility of theorizing an alternative economy, of proposing an economy in which women, for historical and cultural reasons, have a particular investment, without allowing anyone the possibility of proving her wrong. Of course, it is also true that her theory cannot be confirmed, but since its function is strategic, intended to offer a political site of identification and shared struggle, this does not concern her unduly.

The location of sexual difference at the level of jouissance, however, does certainly return Cixous to the bodily; and that is where she wants to be:

By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display—the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. ('The Laugh of the Medusa')

She does not, however, equate the bodily with nature. She sees it as distinctly cultural, as caught up in representation, in language. As Barbara Freeman has argued:

It is precisely the assumption of a non-textual body outside of language, of a linguistic domain which is not itself corporeal that Cixous's reformulation of mind-body relations in a feminine economy calls into question.

Cixous argues that women's relations to their bodies are culturally inscribed, are related to the placing of women in the sphere of the domestic, and to their lesser social possibilities for sublimation. She speculates on the possibility that the capacity to give birth may mean that women have a specific relation to their bodies, but is always aware of the dangers of being too dogmatic. Her most unambiguous statement of the power of sexual difference in 'Sorties' is followed by a painstaking articulation of the difficulties such a claim faces:

But we must make no mistake: men and women are caught up in a web of age-old cultural determinations that are almost unanalyzable in their complexity. One can no more speak of 'woman' than of 'man' without being trapped within an ideological theater where the proliferation of representations, images, reflections, myths, identifications, transform, deform, constantly change everyone's Imaginary and invalidate in advance any conceptualization…. But we are still floundering—with a few exceptions—in Ancient History.

Cixous's return to the body is not an idiosyncratic move. She is writing at a moment when many philosophers and literary critics were returning to the bodily as the location of pleasure. The following extract:

To write the body, neither the skin, nor the muscles, nor the bones, nor the nerves, but the rest: an awkward fibrous, shaggy, raveled thing, a clown's coat

is not from Cixous but from Roland Barthes, in a text where he explores the bodily, as well as the discursive, constitution of his subjectivity. None the less, Cixous's commitment to the experience of writing as bodily has caused particular problems for feminist critics. Jane Gallop has written very interestingly about this problem: about the reluctance within feminist theory to accept 'the body as metaphor, a demand that metaphors of the body be read literally.' Gallop attributes this reluctance to an association of the bodily with the natural, to a refusal to think through the extent to which the bodily, and experiences of sexuality, are cultural, are mediated by discourse: the extent to which we know and experience our bodies in relation to representation and narrative. To some extent, she is clearly correct, yet the worry is more substantial. Writing of the body, we fear appropriation at the point where, historically, we have been most vulnerable, and where we have been so ruthlessly placed.

The most considered and careful analysis of the dilemmas of a return to the bodily, and particularly to images of maternity, is contained in Domna C. Stanton's 'Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Metaphor in Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva'. Stanton's argument shares many of the reservations of Alice Jardine's Gynesis, which explores the difficulties for feminist theorists of taking over the deconstructive project, with its privileging of the 'feminine', and its silence about women. Stanton's reading is powerful, and refers in considerable detail to Cixous's fiction as well as to her theoretical writings. Her basic anxiety is that Cixous is returning to a metaphysics of identity and presence. The use of metaphor itself, she argues, alludes to an economy of similitude, rather than one of difference. Cixous's choice of the maternal as the strategic point of engagement with the politics of sexual difference, however, raises particular issues for Stanton, threatening as it does to return to the certainties of biology, and the 'naturalness' of motherhood.

To this dilemma there is, it seems, no answer, at least not within the political discourse of feminism. To evade the bodily is to reproduce a structure of oppression which has made of women's bodies their point of vulnerability and of guilt. To speak of the bodily risks a similar reproduction. At a fairly trite level, it is clear there is no escape. Yet this should not surprise us: one cannot simply walk out of patriarchy and shake off its effects. What Cixous tries to do is to subvert the discourse of patriarchy, to open it up to contradiction and to difference, while still retaining the possibility of shared recognition which would make a political movement of and for women possible. To what extent she succeeds cannot be answered in any totalizing or definitive way. For me,… some of her projections and mythical reworkings remain powerful, others produce unease. For others, such as Claudine Guégan Fisher or Verena Conley, the project as a whole is clearly both compelling and empowering. What is, however, clear, is that Cixous cannot be accused of naïveté, or epistemological ignorance. She knows the dangers of essentialism—'if one subscribes to … "anatomy is destiny", one participates in condemning woman to death'—and recognizes both 'the mother' and 'the body' as profoundly embedded in the cultural. What she does insist on, however, is that that 'cultural' is organized differently for men and women, and that a writing practice that will reformulate the cultural will be of particular importance for women.

Cixous theorizes an alternative economy of femininity in relation to the concept of 'the gift'. She describes two possible attitudes to giving and to the intersubjective relations involved in the gift: one, which she describes as 'masculine', is caught up in the mechanisms of exchange, and will give only with a certainty of immediate return. Exchange relations assume, by definition, abstract equality, at least for the moment of exchange, and thus exclude the recognition of difference. Cixous's alternative, or feminine, economy of giving seems to be derived to some extent from the work of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, and from the development of Mauss's ideas by Georges Bataille, and by Jacques Derrida. Mauss's work was concerned with forms of social exchange that preceded 'the purely individual contract of the market place'. His research into the social relations of other societies, and of earlier historical periods, led him to produce a theory of 'the gift', as a form regulating intersubjective relations which was both morally loaded and socially implicated. His text came to be read as a form of critique against the individualism and moral irresponsibility of abstract market relations. In adopting the concept of 'the gift', in advocating a form of giving that is not reducible to a single act of exchange, Cixous is not, as is often suggested, adopting the discourse of idealism, but is rather mobilizing a materialist account of social relations which constitutes a critique of 'mass society'. This particular coincidence of modernist aesthetics and an opposition to the cultural and political implications of 'mass culture' will be discussed further [elsewhere].

Having described the limitations of the masculine economy of giving, and related this structure to the structure of dual hierarchized oppositions and murderous subjectivity described in 'Sorties', Cixous goes on to posit an alternative:

Can one speak of another spending? Really, there is no 'free gift'. You never give something for nothing. But the difference lies in the why and how of the gift, in the values that the gesture of giving affirms, causes to circulate; in the type of profit the giver draws from the gift and the use to which he or she puts it.

This different relation to giving is what Cixous sees as characteristic of an alternative, feminine, practice of writing. Such writing would not be afraid to go outside narrative structures, or to create subjectivities that are plural and shifting. It would not need to return to the security of fixed categories, of stable identity. It would dépense: a pun suggesting both the undoing of thought and a liberal spending of energies. It would be on the side of excess.

Cixous is very clear that feminine writing cannot be defined. She tries, particularly in 'The Laugh of the Medusa', to enact it. One characteristic which she does ascribe to it, however, is its proximity to voice. Partly, this is done in order to disrupt the opposition between speech and writing, by suggesting not only the presence of writing in speech, but also the potential presence of living speech in writing. It is also done in order to produce both individual and social change. Speaking, Cixous argues, is a powerfully transgressive action for women, whose bodies cannot be erased from their speech in the way that they have been from their writing. A woman speaking in public is seen first and foremost as a woman, not as a speaker. Finally, however, Cixous privileges speech because of its proximity to song, and thus to the unconscious: she wants to explore the associative logic of music over the linear logic of philosophical and literary discourse.

The specificity of feminine writing is also described in terms of spatial metaphor: 'If woman has always functioned "within" man's discourse … now it is time for her to displace this "within," explode it, overturn it, grab it, make it hers'. Similarly, Cixous talks of feminine writing as happening in the 'between', in that space which is uncertain, dangerous in its refusal to ally itself with one side of an opposition. Stepping outside, negotiating the between, feminine writing is to carve out a new space of representation that will not fit into old grids.

Producing this form of writing is, for Cixous, a political act, and is related to the desire to 'liberate the New Woman from the Old'. The gesture that characterizes the relation of women to the cultural is one of flying and stealing [voler]. Women, Cixous argues, must steal what they need from the dominant culture, but then fly away with their cultural booty to the 'in between', where new images, new narratives, and new subjectivities can be created.

The call to writing for women is most marked in 'The Laugh of the Medusa'. Here Cixous speaks on behalf of women, and uses the pronoun 'we' with an ease and confidence that few of her other texts demonstrate. She knows, however, that many people will condemn her for this polemical strategy: 'Once more you'll say that all this smacks of "idealism," or what's worse, you'll splutter that I'm a "mystic"'. She has, indeed, been accused of both. As we have seen, however, the argument of Cixous's early theoretical texts, is more complex, more careful, and more strategic, than such charges acknowledge.

Cixous began by theorizing the possibility of a model of sexual difference not based on exclusion or hierarchy, and relating this to a model of subjectivity based on openness to the Other rather than obliteration of the Other. She then argued for the possibility of understanding such sexual difference, not at the level of possession or absence of the penis/phallus, but at the level of jouissance. Such libidinal difference was then related to particular practices of writing, since writing was seen as a privileged space for transgression and transformation. The style of writing which Cixous describes as 'feminine' was then derived from a reading of a variety of literary texts, most of them written by men. Finally, in the last stage of her argument, Cixous introduced women, as historical subjects, arguing that women have had most to lose in patriarchy, and have most to gain from its defeat: 'It is in writing, from woman and towards woman … that woman will affirm woman somewhere other than in silence'.

This focus on writing as a political strategy has very clear personal, and indeed biographical, significance for Cixous. This much is clear in reading Cixous's contribution to the volume entitled La Venue à l'écriture, which was published in 1977. Cixous's article in this volume amounts to a biographical and theoretical explanation of her own relation to writing. The volume also contains an article by Madeleine Gagnon, who tries to reclaim women's history through a reconsideration of the relations between sexuality and writing, and one by Annie Leclerc, who analyses problems of doubling, possession, and maternity through a reading of a painting by Vermeer. Echoing Cixous's project in 'Sorties', Leclerc again likens women's strategies in writing to the burrowing of a mole:

Ce sont les fondations que nous minons peu à peu … nous les taupes innombrables, obscures et malicieuses. (La Venue)

[These are the foundations which we are mining little by little … we the moles who are beyond reckoning, dark and mischievous.]

Cixous's account of her relation to writing begins with her childhood, and in particular with the death of her father. She describes the ways in which writing seemed to offer the means to counteract the finality of death, a theme which also preoccupies her in Prénoms de personne, as well as in novels such as Dedans and Tombe. She also describes her entry into the texts and knowledges of the dominant culture, and the extent to which she felt they excluded her history and her experiences:

Toutes les raisons pour lesquelles je croyais n'avoir pas le droit d'écrire, les bonnes et les moins bonnes, et les vraies fausses:—je n'ai pas de lieu d'où écrire. Aucun lieu légitime, ni terre, ni patrie, ni histoire à moi. (Entre l'écriture)

[All the reasons for which I believed that I did not have the right to write, good reasons, less good reasons, and those that were true and false: I had no place from which to write. No legitimate place, no land, no homeland, no history of my own.]

Despite her early passion for writing, then, what she experiences in her encounter with the dominant culture is loss and exclusion.

This sense of exclusion is related by Cixous to her identity as both woman and Jew: both tending to exclude her, to make her vulnerable to the Law. Her relation to language is marked by the complexity of her national identities. Her father was a Sephardic Jew, whose family came originally from Spain, but moved first to Morocco, and then to Algeria, where Cixous grew up and was educated within the French educational system. Her mother was an Ashkenazi Jew, whose family came from various regions of what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cixous's 'mother tongue' was thus German, although the languages that surrounded her in Algeria were French and Arabic. She considers the effects of such linguistic diversity on her attitude to writing. For example, she stresses the musicality of German, and its profound bodily resonances for her—an observation that can perhaps be linked to her interest in the voice as part of writing. Similarly, she observes that she has always been fascinated by the resources of different languages, and has approached each language delicately, in order to respect its specificity. The theoretical importance of this sense of linguistic distance and strangeness is stressed again by Cixous in a recent article where she writes that: 'the most important thing is that you never become too familiar and you never come to the point when you can hear it speak to you and you think you speak it'. Such a detached, but emotionally charged, relation to language gives us an interesting insight into Cixous's capacity to exploit the power of the signifier to exceed any fixed meaning, and into her tendency to push the resources of language to their limits.

As 'La Venue à l'écriture' develops, what we experience is a sense of frustration, of urgency, and of anger. Again and again Cixous is confronted by the importance to her of writing, and by her incapacity to write. She is convinced that writing is the space of truth, and that truth is singular. Yet she experiences herself as heterogeneous, as made up of various identities, of many and varied desires, and concludes that she cannot be in the place of truth, or of writing. In reading this text we share Cixous's sense of frustration as she is repeatedly turned away from writing towards the restraint and the homogeneity in which she is culturally placed.

Eventually, however, Cixous describes her entry into writing: her first published volume of short stories came out when she was 30. The inner need to write is finally stronger than the pressures on her to silence. Women must have lost everything, have been driven to their limit, before they can risk the taboo of writing, Cixous argues. When they begin to write, they must remain in a critical relation to the languages and the narratives they inherit: they must invent new beginnings, remove themselves from the fixed categories and identities they have inhabited, explore the 'third body': which is neither the inside nor the outside, but the space between.

Only through such exploration, Cixous argues, can women challenge the culturally produced category of 'woman'. The figure of 'woman' is a representation, projected by the Law, formed by exclusion and censure and by modes of thought based on hierarchy and opposition. In writing, Cixous argues, women can explore other identifications, other images, can rediscover some of what has been unexpressed, actively repressed. She suggests that a new form of shared identity is possible for women, formed not in relation to 'woman', but rather in terms of shared unconscious patterns and forms, which are the product of shared histories worked out across shared bodies.

'La Venue à l'écriture' ends on the positive invocation of an identity for women that might not be caught in the negativities of 'woman'. It has a happy ending: Cixous, after all, has clearly 'come to writing'. Yet this triumphant conclusion remains remarkably fleeting, and slippery. Cixous's final image of women's relations to writing is of fish swimming in water: reassuring, but hard to pin down.

Cixous's writings on writing, and on its political potential, are, then, a compound of the biographical, the strategic, and the theoretical. She offers her own history as part of her writing, as part of bringing other women to writing. She always reads this history in negotiation with theoretical and literary texts that seem to give it a more generalizing power: the power to explain, and to produce recognition, however tentative. She is aware of the dangers inherent in trying to speak or write as a woman, and aims to pick her way through the minefield of cultural stereotype, literary figure, and lived history. If she does not always succeed, we can perhaps more usefully reflect on the tendency of mines to explode, than rush to conclude that the field was never worth crossing.

Discussion of Cixous's writing in the 1970s would not be complete, however, without some reference to the institutional and political contexts in which her work was produced, and read, since these contexts clearly overdetermined responses to Cixous's work, both in France and in the United States. The French feminist movement of the 1970s was unhappily divided. The movement had grown very significantly since 1968: frustration and anger at the exclusion of women from the political structures of '68 led to a variety of opposing analyses of the appropriate strategies and theories to adopt. To some extent, the divisions seem very familiar to anyone involved in the history of feminist struggle in Britain or the USA. Radical feminists stressed the priority of women's oppression to any political analysis. Socialist feminists worked to integrate feminist struggle into the agenda of the Left. One particular movement, however, was fairly specific to the French political and intellectual scene—the group called 'Psychanalyse et Politique' (Psych et Po) who struggled to develop revolutionary theories of the oppression of women on the basis of psychoanalytic theory. The most prominent member of this group was Antoinette Fouque, and it was the group with which Cixous was most clearly identified.

Psych et Po set up the des femmes publishing house: an organization committed to the publishing of work by women, and in particular of contemporary work which seemed to fit within the parameters of 'feminine writing'. The bookshop des femmes was established in 1974, and the publishing house has continued to the present day. Despite its primary commitment to the publication of writing by women, des femmes does publish some work by men, and even appointed a man as commercial director in 1988. The political strategy of Psych et Po was based on the necessity of challenging the unconscious structures of patriarchal oppression, and their policy was the by-now familiar one of working like 'moles' to disturb the dominant cultural and political order. They were very hostile towards groups that described themselves as 'feminist', seeing such groups as reformist, and as working, simply to gain access to, and to reproduce, the structures of masculine power. They preferred to speak instead of the 'women's movement', and their outlook was resolutely internationalist, preferring to work on the possibilities of international support for women struggling against oppression, rather than to concentrate on domestic French politics. They were also committed to the importance of writing as a point of political struggle.

The single greatest area of conflict between Psych et Po and other feminist groups lay in their attitude towards 'difference'. Feminists associated with the journal Questions Féministes, including Christine Delphy, Monique Wittig, and Simone de Beauvoir, believed that any discussion of 'difference' in relation to women was bound to reproduce existing hierarchies, and could only play out the existing stereotypes of 'woman's nature'. Psych et Po rejected this analysis, claiming that the fear of 'difference' within feminism led to reformism and homogeneity, instanced, for example, by the failure of US feminism to address the question of race.

This disagreement is profound, with clear implications for political strategy. It continues to provide one of the pivotal points of debates within feminist theory, as books like The Future of Difference make clear. This theoretical difference, however, became overlaid with personal conflicts, displayed at conferences and in published texts and pamphlets. Tensions increased in the wake of legal actions initiated by des femmes against others involved in the women's movement, violent attacks on the bookshop des femmes, and the decision by Psych et Po to register 'MLF', the acronym of the Women's Liberation Movement, as their own trademark.

The passion and anger that went into these debates and conflicts is now, more than ten years later, rather hard to recapture. Their usefulness for the feminist movement is certainly hard to determine. Yet they are important in the context of this [essay], since they affected the ways in which Cixous's work was read. Cixous published her fictional work exclusively with des femmes between 1976 and 1982, and has recently begun publishing with them again. This relationship with des femmes placed her inside the parameters of the struggle over difference, and tended to produce an attitude either of total loyalty or complete rejection—neither tending to aid discussion of the range of her work.

The other context which is important to the reception of Cixous's work is her association with the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes). This section of the University of Paris was set up after 1968, and Cixous was involved with it from the beginning. Vincennes was established in conscious opposition to existing institutions of higher education. It admitted students with 'non-standard' entrance qualifications, including many overseas students; it was interdisciplinary; it strove to diminish hierarchies between teacher and student; it rejected examinations in favour of continuous assessment. It was also profoundly disliked by sections of the French establishment. It was at Vincennes that Cixous established the Centre d'Etudes Féminines, a centre committed to interdisciplinary research on the space of femininity within modernity. This development was explicitly attacked by the government, who took action in 1980 to prevent the awarding of higher degrees by the Centre. This action did not succeed in the long term, but it was an indication of the hostility with which Cixous's work was met by large sections of the political and literary establishment.

Throughout the 1970s, Cixous continued to produce large numbers of fictional texts which set in play her ideas about femininity and writing, and explored subjectivity and intertextuality…. Her next important statement of the theoretical issues crucial to her work, however, appeared in the journal Etudes Freudiennes in 1983. This took the form of an exploration of the figure of Tancredi, as represented by Torquato Tasso in Jerusalem Delivered, and by Rossini in the opera Tancredi. Cixous used the figure of Tancredi as a means to dramatize the complexity of sexual difference, and as a linking point between textual, unconscious, and biographical explorations of such difference.

Cixous's attitude to Tasso's Tancredi has clearly changed since she wrote 'Sorties'. In 'Sorties' she compared Tasso unfavourably with Kleist, arguing that Penthesilea and Achilles represented a much more transgressive form of desire than that represented by the relationship between Tancredi and Clorinda: 'Tancredi passionately reuniting with Clorinda the moment he destroyed her aspect as a warrior. No jouissance then …' But perhaps this shift should alert us to the dangers of claiming any 'definitiveness' for Cixous's readings of any given text. Cixous's readings are often related to a much wider project, aimed at opening up theoretical and political difficulties, rather than at summing up a text.

The figure of Tancredi with which Cixous engages is derived from two different sources. Tasso's poem, written in the late sixteenth century, deals with the struggles of the Crusader army during the last few months before the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The Christian forces include Tancredi:

       With majesty his noble count'nance shone         High were his thoughts, his heart was bold in fight         … His fault was love.

Tancredi meets by chance, and falls in love with, a Muslim warrior, Clorinda:

       This lusty lady came from Persia late,          She with the Christians had encountered eft,          And in their flesh had opened many a gate          By which their youthful souls their bodies left.

During the course of a battle, Clorinda and Tancredi fight, unaware of each other's identity. Tancredi knocks off her helmet, recognizes her as the woman with whom he has fallen in love, and refuses to fight any more. Nine books later, they are once again locked in combat. By now we have heard Clorinda's life history, and have learned that she was actually born a Christian. Once again Tancredi is ignorant of his opponent's identity, and assumes he is fighting with 'some man of mickle might'. The struggle takes place at night, and continues with an intensity that lends to it an air of unreality, of dream. Eventually

       His sword into her bosom deep he drives,          And bath'd in lukewarm blood his iron cold

and Clorinda dies, begging in her final moments for baptism. Only now does Tancredi realize what he has done. He

                              'gan to tear and rend          His hair, his face, his wounds: a purple flood        Did from each side in rolling streams descend.

Tancredi expresses horror at what he has done, and proclaims his wish to die. He is then 'rescued' by a priest, who accuses him of having been in thrall to a non-Christian, and threatens him with damnation. Finally, Clorinda returns to Tancredi in a dream, thanks him for saving her soul, and talks passionately of her love for him.

This brief summary cannot do justice to the epic dimensions of Tasso's poem, nor to the power of the transgression represented by Tancredi and Clorinda's love. The fusion of passion and violence, the continual postponement of questions of identity, the enormity of the stakes between Christianity and Islam combine to give this element of Tasso's poem a resonance that disturbs the seeming neatness of its conclusion.

Rossini's Tancredi is also a warrior, and is also involved in fighting against Islam. The story is adapted from a tragedy by Voltaire. Tancredi's lover in this story is Amenaide, a woman who is wrongly suspected by her lover, and by all those around her, of being a traitor. Confusions of identity are, once more, important: a letter sent by Amenaide to Tancredi is assumed to have been sent to the leader of the enemy forces. Amenaide is condemned to death by her own father for her treachery, but saved by Tancredi who defends her honour in single combat, despite believing in her guilt. Tancredi is then fatally injured in the battle against the Saracens, but lives long enough to learn of Amenaide's innocence, and to be reunited with her.

The coincidence of names has led many critics to conclude that Rossini derived the plot of his opera from Tasso. This is not, in fact, the case. The source is Voltaire's Tancrède, which is derived from a number of sources, including Ariosto. The confusion is not perhaps surprising. C. B. Beall notes:

Tancrède, sujet qui vient de l'Arioste, mais dont l'esprit chevaleresque, la conception de l'amour et la scène de la mort prèsentent aussi des analogies avec le poème du Tasse.

[Tancrède, a subject derived from Ariosto, but one in which the spirit of chivalry, the conception of love, and the death scene are also to some extent analogous to elements of Tasso's poem.]

Cixous is not at all concerned, however, to claim that these two Tancredis are, in fact, 'the same'. Instead, she exploits the confusion surrounding their relations: 'there are several Tancredis, which is why I am having such a hard time trying not to mislead us…. I am swimming between two Tancredis' ('Tancredi Continues'). Her aim is to develop an argument about sexual difference and its representation across these Tancredis, across Clorinda and Amenaide.

Perhaps the most important fact about Rossini's hero is that the part is sung by a woman. It is a Travesti role, originally, of course, destined for a castrato, but now providing a powerful and challenging role for singers of the calibre of Marilyn Horne. Cixous's argument is closely related to the fact of operatic performance, to the presence of the woman's body and voice within the heroic man.

Cixous begins by stating her fascination with Tasso's Tancredi and Clorinda, who move outside the rigid categories of opposition and war, driven on by the power of their love. What interests her is 'the movement of love', its inherent grace, which she describes as a 'gracious exchange' between pleasures. This grace is set against the paralysis and limitations of fear. The abyss, the Law, is invented by our fear, and Cixous recommends the strategy of the acrobat, who leaps over the abyss with lightness and with grace.

When she turns to Rossini, Cixous tries to unravel the significance of the casting of Tancredi as a woman, a 'Tancreda'. Here, she argues, Rossini has perceived something essential to the character of Tancredi: his capacity to engage with the Other placing him firmly on the side of the feminine. This presence of the feminine in the masculine Cixous designates as 'Enigma', but also as her 'life work'.

Cixous then moves towards a recreation of the power of Tancredi in performance: remembering the physical presence of women, one in blue and one in white, singing of the power of their love. She is convinced that the force of that performance embodies an important secret about subjectivity and sexual difference, but is also tortured by her own inability to give form to this secret: 'I saw their secret. What I am telling of it is no more than light turned to dust'.

The importance of this 'secret' leads her to reproduce it in the form of a dream. She describes her dream of a turquoise, luminous, beautiful, hanging above her, just out of reach: inside the turquoise is a pearl. The turquoise embodies the secret, but it cannot be grasped. Here then in this fusion of blue and white, this 'inside' and 'outside', this transparency and opacity, is a symbol of the complexity of sexual difference. The blue and white, echoing the costumes of Tancredi and Amenaide, can then be read as figures of masculinity and femininity, clearly different, but hard to open up, or to separate.

The dream imagery gives way to a description of Cixous's own desire for a relationship of love that would not be limited and paralysed by the rigid hierarchies of masculinity and femininity. In some powerfully lyrical passages, Cixous describes her love for another person, a person who has suffered from the distortions of gender identity, yet who remains plural: 'In any case she is not a woman. She is plural. Like all living beings who are sometimes invaded, sometimes populated, incarnated by others'. 'She' also listens to Tancredi, which thus becomes something of a symbol of resistance to rigid categorization of sexual difference.

The point of Cixous's moving between text, performance, unconscious, and biography, lies in her unease about the capacity of words to hold out against the power of opposition. Tancredi, she argues, takes us to 'l'autre côté' [the other side] of hierarchies of sexual difference, another spatial metaphor which recurs in Cixous's texts, from her reading of Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass to her exploration of the Kingdom of the Dead in La. The problem, however, is how to describe this other side without making it simply a mirror image of what we already have.

The dilemma Cixous faces is that 'the more I try to say, the more I feel I have wandered astray far from what, beneath appearances and secretly and obscurely, I am sure I have understood'. She feels the pressure to produce formulae and solutions which are more dogmatic, more rigid, than her understanding of the 'movement' of sexual difference allows. She contemplates the possibility of giving up altogether on the project of trying to talk about sexual difference, about women and the economy of the feminine, since the pressure within this project to reproduce the dominant figure of the 'feminine' is so intense:

But perhaps what is hardest and most necessary, is to positively forget these judges who make us answer their stupid summons stupidly, justify the non-justifiable, speak silence, crush the music under the millstone of words, lie by swearing to tell only their truth, plead guilty to a lack of absence.

She talks once more of feeling oppressed by the 'word police', who demand fixity of meaning and of purpose. The word 'woman', she argues, carries such cultural weight, exists within so many historically embedded discourses, that by saying it again we are perhaps simply enclosing ourselves once more.

The solution to this problem cannot be simple: it persists with urgency throughout the whole of Cixous's writing. In the end, she admits, it cannot be run away from: 'nowadays there are so many clandestine massacres of women that a woman has to say "woman" a dozen times a day in order to protest'. 'Tancredi Continues' is a contribution to the project of rethinking sexual difference. In it, Cixous tries to avoid the programmatic and the dogmatic, in favour of the allusive and the impressionistic. Her argument amounts to an insistence that we cannot determine the nature of 'femininity' once and for all, but can only hope, across a range of texts, to glimpse the possibility of a different economy of sexuality.

Cixous's continuing unease about the capacity of language to escape from cliché, and from the habitual, her frustration with its tendency towards reproduction of the status quo, has led her finally to consider the transgressive potential of painting as a form of representation. In an essay entitled 'Le dernier tableau ou le portrait de Dieu' ['The Final Painting or the Portrait of God'] Cixous considers the potential of painting as a site of representations that challenge the cultural-embeddedness of language. The principal object of her analysis is Post-Impressionism. At first, what she detects in the paintings of Monet, or of Van Gogh, seems to be a kind of immediacy of visual and emotional impact. She describes her own desire to write like a painter: to communicate the full force of the instant, the colours and textures of the present moment. The same desire to express the intensity of the instantaneous is embodied in the concept of 'quasacles' ('quasi-miracle-instants') which Cixous describes, in a manner reminiscent of Woolf's 'moments of being' or Joyce's 'epiphanies', in her novel With ou l'art de l'innocence. This intensity and instantaneousness is, she suggests, something Clarice Lispector achieves, in a form of writing which has the force of a concentration of images, a series of paintings.

Cixous's attitude towards the painter at this point is one of jealousy: 'le peintre peut vous briser le coeur avec l'épiphanie d'une mer' [the painter can break you heart with the epiphany of a sea], while she herself can only name, or describe. This consideration leads her to a reflection on the emotional power of language, which she sees as necessarily intersubjective. Thus she speculates on whether the very limitation of language, its inability to capture the visual force of the present, may not be its strength: its power depending absolutely on the active contribution of the reader.

The opposition at this point seems to be between the instantaneous plenitude of painting and the temporal intersubjectivity of writing. Like all such oppositions, however, this one is soon challenged. Cixous turns to a consideration of the phenomenon of repetition: a phenomenon important to the argument of Prénoms de personne. When she turns to the series of Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral, plenitude disappears, to be replaced by time and deferral:

Voir la vérité de la cathédrale qui est vingt-six, et la noter, c'est-à-dire voir le temps. Peindre le temps. Peindre le mariage du temps et de la lumière.

[To see the truth of the cathedral that is twenty-six cathedrals, and to record it, that is to say to see time. To paint time. To paint the marriage of time and light.]

Painting then becomes a struggle against change and time, an attempt to capture the temporal within the instantaneous. The agonies of this process lead painters like Van Gogh to the necessity of speed in painting, as if quick execution could negate temporality, or even capture its form. Again Cixous sets up an opposition: between the slowness, the necessary deferral, of writing and the rapidity of visual representation.

What is at stake in this 'rapidity', for Cixous, is its power to force the painter outside the secure boundaries of the self, outside the categories of cultural expectation and cliché. Again the argument is one about 'grace': the audacious movement by the painter which refuses to acknowledge fear, in which the painter 'devient femme' [becomes woman]. The possibility of such agility leads Cixous to a consideration of how it might be achieved in writing, how the false step and the false word could be avoided. Her object is the rediscovery of simplicity, a concept whose theoretical weight is developed through readings of Kleist, Heidegger, and Lispector.

Kleist introduces the possibility of rediscovering innocence through knowledge. Heidegger stresses the power of visual representation to communicate the being of Being: 'Van Gogh's painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes is in truth. This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of its being.' Lispector provides the example of a form of writing that is painterly in its fidelity to the identity of individual things. The writer, Cixous argues, should imitate the painter in her refusal to stigmatize 'the ugly', in her capacity to see the possibility of significance and meaning in all objects.

The final turn against the 'plenitude' of representation comes when Cixous argues that the most important meaning of painting arises when all possibility of fixed meaning has been erased by repetition. Thus Monet's waterlilies, reappearing in so many different forms, point towards the infinite, the impossibility of closure in representation. The difficulty of painting points, however, towards the human importance of the attempt: the necessity to record the fact of impossibility, of repetition. In this project, Cixous states her alliance with the painter.

Yet one important difference remains. The painter deals with surfaces; Cixous wants to explore the inside, the underneath, the taste and the texture. When he was sent an apple as a gift, Monet could not bear to bite into it, and gave it away. This is an action Cixous rejects:

Moi je l'aurais mangée. En cela je suis différente de ceux auxquels j'aimerais ressembler. Dans mon besoin de toucher la pomme sans la voir. De la connaître dans le noir. Avec mes doigts, avec mes lèvres, avec ma langue.

[For myself, I would have eaten it. In that way I am different from those I would like to resemble. In my need to touch the apple without seeing it. To know it in darkness. With my fingers, with my lips, with my tongue and my language.]

Finally, then, in this dialogue between the writer and the painter, the writer holds her own. She asserts the possibility of transforming knowledge and experience through writing, and writes herself out of the trap of 'the habitual' which has threatened so many theorists of modernism. The unease continues, however, about the complicity of writing with the hierarchical oppositions whose analysis was so important to 'Sorties'. It is perhaps for this reason that Cixous turns, in the 1980s, to theatre: a space that seems to embody the troubled relations between temporality, repetition, and immediacy which so fascinated her in painting.

Wendy Steiner (review date 31 January 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "From Narcissism to Seduction," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4635, January 31, 1992, p. 24.

[Steiner is a Canadian-born American critic and educator who has written works on such authors as Gertrude Stein and Roman Jakobson. In the review below, she offers mixed assessments of "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays and Readings. Steiner concludes that "Cixous embodies a paradox…. [She] represents a radical contemporaneity … but aesthetically she belongs in the early twentieth century."]

Ten years ago, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray were names to conjure with. Today, at least in France, "Feminism, like Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism (or like the narrow striped tie?), is definitively passé." "No one", Susan Rubin Suleiman goes on, "that is, no one … dans le vent … 'does' it anymore." Having just returned from Moscow where no one does it at all, and seemingly never did, and from London, where they do it, but to little avail, I note that even Americans, who do it quite correctly, are losing the zest or the guilt that kept them at it.

It is unsettling to see those "dans le vent" fluttering by in this fickle way, for there is little doubt that Cixous has had an important influence on contemporary thought. Her depiction of woman "With one hand, suffering, living, putting your finger on pain, loss", is now archetypal, as is her condemnation of constraint: "There's always a gramma-r to censure it." But her essays are never intemperate harangues against phallogocentrism. For example, she depicts constraint as both externally imposed by the "capitalist-realist Superuncle. The Master of Repetition, The Anti-Other in papaperson", but also as internalized within every woman: "I believed as one should in the principle of identity, of noncontradiction, of unity…. I was there with my big pair of scissors, and as soon as I saw myself overlapping, snip, I cut, I adjusted, I reduced everything to a personage known as a 'a proper woman'." A "Jewoman" raised in Algeria by a German-speaking mother, her father dead, Cixous embodies the "Other", the displaced post-colonial subject.

In the moving essay, "Coming to Writing", Cixous describes woman as "This flesh that's been superhistoricized, museumized, reorganized, overworked." She tells how she began with just such an objectifying adoration of female beauty—that of her mother's face. "The look incited me and also forbade me to enter." But she outgrew this voyeuristic, narcissistic aesthetic, transforming the woman in the mirror into woman as light:

This is the woman who belongs to love: the woman who loves all the women inside her. (Not the "beautiful" woman Uncle Freud speaks of, the beauty in the mirror, the beauty who loves herself so much that no one can ever love her enough, not the queen of beauty.) She doesn't watch herself, she doesn't examine herself, not the image, not the copy. The vibrant flesh, the enchanted womb, the woman pregnant with all the love. Not seduction, not absence, not the abyss adorned with veils. Plenitude, she who doesn't watch herself, doesn't reappropriate all her images reflected in people's faces, is not the devourer of eyes. She who looks with the look that recognizes … Brings back to light the life that's been buried, fugitive, made too prudent. Illuminates it and sings it its names.

Who could not admire a woman escaping narcissism into love?

And yet, Cixous's textual criticism is as likely to provoke impatience as admiration. The essays gathered in Readings are as inconsequential as any random group of interpretations, alternating between the rhapsodic and the obvious. Though Cixous is very good on Joyce, for example, it comes as no great surprise that "the subject in Joyce is structured by a series of oppositions", or even that his work "is owed to an immense spelling error".

Even Cixous's most sympathetic commentators cannot seem to make the case for her importance. "The Laugh of the Medusa", perhaps her most influential text, fanned a major controversy among feminists over "essentialism", the attribution of a female difference from men that some feared would simply reinstate existing gender hierarchies. "The passion and anger that went into these debates", says Morag Shiach in Hélène Cixous: A politics of writing, "is now, more than ten years later, rather hard to recapture." The purity of Cixous's theorizing itself seems suspect when Shiach tells us that "The style of writing which Cixous describes as 'feminine' was … derived from a reading of a variety of literary texts, most of them written by men."

The problem, however, is not that these were written by men but that they were written by modernists. Her sources are Joyce, Kafka and Nietzsche, but she sounds like no one as much as Gertrude Stein, the most intransigent of the early twentieth-century experimentalists and a woman to boot. Fascinated by automatic writing, both women attempted to disrupt logic, rationality and categorical thinking in order to achieve immediacy, a kind of Derridean presence. Lovers of puns and word play, both learned from painters. Cixous quotes Monet: "what I am looking for, instantaneousness". In an essay from the Harvard collection, "The Last Painting or the Portrait of God", she contrasts works of art, which "search us out with [their] eyes…. catch hold of us", and works of seduction, in which figures "do not feel themselves looked at; they are looking inside their hearts in the direction of the infinite". In this exact parallel to Michael Fried's "theatricality" versus "absorption", Cixous's model is the seductive or absorptive work, which gives no sign that it is addressed to an audience. Cixous cites Kafka's deathbed scribble, "lemonade everything was so infinite", as a verbal equivalent to such painting. Because it does not take the reader into account, Cixous, like Stein, believes that such path-finding art is often ugly, and feminine writing especially so.

In short, Cixous embodies a paradox. Politically speaking, she represents a radical contemporaneity—post-colonial, feminist: but aesthetically she belongs in the early twentieth century, trying to change reality through linguistic disruption and playfulness. And here one wants to take issue with a critic such as John Barth who, as late as 1980, argued that American women have no connection with the most important writing of their day, postmodernism, because their work is like nineteenth-century realism—little more than "the eloquent issuance … of secular news reports". Barth would presumably approve of Cixous, who is as non-realist as they come, and yet how tendentious her writing seems next to the imagistic and emotional intensity of Marilynne Robinson or the historicist virtuosity of Toni Morrison. Though Gertrude Stein may be "the mother of us all", contemporary women writers are searching for their mothers' gardens not in the sterile efflorescence of modernist language games, but in the dirt and flowers of reality, and it is here that Cixous does not lead them.

Peter Baker (review date June-July 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Discourses That Enact Their Subjects," in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, June-July, 1992, p. 16.

[In the following excerpt, Baker offers a positive review of "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays. He states that while Cixous's works can be difficult and that readers must come to her writing with "a certain openness," she "may be the theorist who most clearly opens the way for a writerly kind of feminist thinking."]

That a discourse can or even should enact what it describes, or be like what it is about, is one of the discoveries claimed (and, of course, immediately therefore disputed) by various feminisms. I am one who thinks a certain credit should be given to feminist writers, and feminist theorists in particular, for breaking down the monological discourse of correctness and objectivity that represents one aspect of the patriarchy. Hélène Cixous … [constructs a discourse] responsive to this claim.

Cixous may be the theorist who most clearly opens the way for a writerly kind of feminist thinking. Known by American readers primarily for the wild, effusive, and challenging essay "The Laugh of the Medusa," her work may well be poised for a wider exposure and acceptance in this country. This would even seem to be the premise of the editor and other presenters of the collection "Coming to Writing" and Other Essays. Thus we are given most of one French collection and two essays from another. The euphoria, uncontained, uncontainable, over the event obscures the reasons for this editorial decision: why not the two essays on James Joyce in Entre l'écriture (1986)? why instead two essays from a separate volume on Clarice Lispector? One could guess. Joyce is a male author, resoundingly condemned by establishment critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar; Clarice Lispector is a South American woman writer, also Jewish, who would seem to offer another female voice. On the other hand, Joyce is relatively well known, and the essays on him by Cixous are perhaps untranslatable. But why not tell us the reason for the editorial choice?

But this is my only criticism. Otherwise the volume is nearly perfect. I should stop right now. But I must continue. How to avoid speaking? How not to …?

Cixous gives us an autobiography in cryptic terms. She understands, with Walter Benjamin, that death is the authorization for everything the storyteller can say: "That we move away from and approach Death, our double mother, through writing, because writing is always first a way of not being able to go through with mourning for death." But this authorization must also stem from love, not just a love for writing, but a love that eliminates and purifies everything, including the "I" who writes.

This possibility, this dangerous liberty, is structurally closer to women writing, says Cixous, because they are closer to what has always been hidden by the image of the male Narcissus, the abyss. The abyss is variously figured in the actual experience of women, both "nearer to and farther from loss than a man is." Always having been held back, restrained by male-dominated culture, women have yet to discover the limits of their flight, their bodies, their loves, their texts. And it is this ongoing process that Cixous's texts enact.

Let there be no doubt that Cixous is also a tremendous reader of others' texts. Like her male counterpart, Jacques Derrida, Cixous demonstrates nearly infinite patience in her deconstructive textual encounters. That this requires a great deal of patience by her readers is, only apparently paradoxically, part of her gift. As she says, in reading the lesson of Clarice Lispector: "The text teaches us that the most difficult thing to do is to arrive at the most extreme proximity while guarding against the trap of projection, of identification. The other must remain absolutely strange within the greatest possible proximity." And Cixous's text actually does this, discussing Lispector's work in close detail without making it any less strange.

The revelation to me in the volume is the essay "The Last Painting or the Portrait of God." Here Cixous tells us that she always wished she were a painter, and that this accounts for the way she writes. Somehow she manages to paint with words in such a way as actually to bring about an insight into what this might mean. Like the mimosa, which overwhelms the senses but recedes, sensitive to the touch, Cixous overwhelms the written word with layers of thought and sense-description, while withdrawing any possible center or point. As she says: "And the lesson is: one does not paint ideas. One does not paint 'a subject.' And in the same way: no writing ideas. There is no subject. There are only mysteries. There are only questions." Obviously, as a reader, one must come to this kind of writing with a certain openness, but then that too is part of the lesson, part of the gift.


Cixous, Hélène (Feminism in Literature)