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."
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.
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.
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."