Hélène Cixous Cixous, Hélène (Feminism in Literature) - Essay

Introduction

(Feminism in Literature)

Amajor 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. Cixous is best known for her essay collaboration with Catherine Clément, La jeune née (1975; The Newly Born Woman) and her essay "Le rire de la Méduse" (1975; "The Laugh of the Medusa"). Both texts are recognized as being markedly influenced by the writings of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher and founder of the critical method known as deconstructionism; Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian who rejected the theory of human nature and was a proponent of the notion of an ever-changing self; Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher who proposed a linguistic theory of the unconscious; and Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis. A proponent of écriture féminine, or feminine writing, Cixous strives in all of her works to establish a uniquely feminine perspective, both to correct 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.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria, to a French-colonial father and Austro-German mother. Members of her family were Sephardic Jews, and Cixous grew up with a sense of kinship with persecuted groups. Her father, a physician, died when she was eleven, 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 des lettres in 1968. She also founded, with Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov, the prestigious literary and critical journal Poétique in 1968. She was a founder of the University of Paris-Vincennes (also known as Paris VIII), a liberal school offering an alternative to traditional education, and the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Feminines in 1974. Also that year, she established Europe's first doctoral program for women's studies. 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 ou l'art du remplacement (1968; The Exile of James Joyce or the Art of Replacement). 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 Hoffman, Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe, and Joyce. These essays deal with the concept of the "unified subject," or the individual's sense of being or "possessing" a distinct, whole personality. In 1975, Cixous published "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-covered 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. La venue à l'écriture (1977), co-authored with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon, further evinces Cixous's preoccupations with language, psychoanalysis, and feminine pleasure. In her novel Illa (1980) Cixous restructures the story of Persephone and Demeter. The Greek goddess Persephone, according to legend, was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (the Roman goddess Ceres, goddess of crops and fertility). She was abducted and raped by Hades and forced to be his wife. Demeter searched for Persephone and, grieving over her disappearance, decided that the land would be infertile until she was reunited with her daughter. Zeus brokered a deal that would allow Persephone to reside with her mother for two-thirds of the year; for the other third she would be imprisoned in Hell with Hades. Greek mythology uses this myth to explain the earth's barren condition during the winter months. In Illa, Cixous highlights the male-dominated, colonizing aspects of this tale and changes the story to reflect a more self-determined, feminist text. In Illa, she celebrates camaraderie among women, underscores women's link with nature, and highlights the feminine goals of love and nonviolence. Entre l'écriture (1986; "Coming to Writing," and Other Essays) collects translations of a number of Cixous's critical works written after 1976, including "Clarice Lispector: An Approach," "Trancredi Continues," and the title essay.

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 contradictory nature of her work and her intentional resistance to analysis. Her penchant for using both feminine and masculine writing techniques within feminine literature has confused some commentators, yet many find that writers need to claim both the male and female identity to present a whole self. Some reviewers also suggest that Cixous's attempts to redefine gender differences reduce women to what one critic has called an "anatomical essence," and that her works are, in fact, antifeminist. Others argue that Cixous's work is expansive rather than reductive. Most critics, however, praise Cixous's belief that the creation of a new language of discourse is essential for feminine expression and women's search for identity.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Le prénom de Dieu (short stories) 1967

L'exil de James Joyce ou l'art du remplacement [The Exile of James Joyce or the Art of Replacement] (doctoral thesis) 1968

Dedans [Inside] (novel) 1969

Le troisième corps [The Third Body] (novel) 1970

Neutre (novel) 1972

Portrait du soleil (novel) 1974

Prénoms de personne (essays) 1974

La jeune née [The Newly Born Woman] (essays) 1975

Portrait de Dora [Portrait of Dora] (play) 1975

"Le rire de la Méduse" ["The Laugh of the Medusa"] (essay) 1975

Souffles (novel) 1975

LA (novel) 1976

Partie (play) 1976

Angst (novel) 1977

La venue à l'écriture [with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon] (nonfiction) 1977

Vivre l'orange/To Live the Orange (novel) 1979

Illa (novel) 1980

With ou l'art de l'innocence (novel) 1981

Limonade tout était si infini (novel) 1982

Entre l'écriture ["Coming to Writing" and Other Stories] (essays) 1986

Hélène Cixous, Photos de racines [Hélène Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing] (interviews) 1994

Les Rêveries de la femme sauvage (nonfiction) 2000

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

HÉLÈNE CIXOUS (ESSAY DATE 1975)

SOURCE: Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa,” translated by Keith and Paula Cohen. In New French Feminisms: An Anthology, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, pp. 245-47. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

In the following excerpt from “The Laugh of the Medusa,” originally published in 1975, Cixous calls for all women to write and claim language and literature in order to liberate themselves from male oppression.

I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.

The future must no longer be determined by the past. I do not deny that the effects of the past are still with us. But I refuse to strengthen them by repeating them, to confer upon them an irremovability the equivalent of destiny, to confuse the biological and the cultural. Anticipation is imperative.

Since these reflections are taking shape in an area just on the point of being discovered, they necessarily bear the mark of our time—a time during which the new breaks away from the old, and, more precisely, the (feminine) new from the old (la nouvelle de l’ancien). Thus, as there are no grounds for establishing a discourse, but rather an arid millennial ground to break, what I say has at least two sides and two aims: to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project.

I write this as a woman, toward women. When I say “woman,” I’m speaking of woman in her inevitable struggle against conventional man; and of a universal woman subject who must bring women to their senses and to their meaning in history. But first it must be said that in spite of the enormity of the repression that has kept them in the “dark”—that dark which people have been trying to make them accept as their attribute—there is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman. What they have in common I will say. But what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes—any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another. Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible.

I have been amazed more than once by a description a woman gave me of a world all her own which she had been secretly haunting since early childhood. A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity. This practice, extraordinarily rich and inventive, in particular as concerns masturbation, is prolonged or accompanied by a production of forms, a veritable aesthetic...

(The entire section is 1314 words.)

Verena Andermatt Conley (Essay Date 1984)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Conley, Verena Andermatt. "Textual Strategies." In Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, pp. 3-13. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

In the following essay, Conley addresses Cixous's theories of feminine discourse and illustrates the author's opinions of the femininity and masculinity of texts and writing.

May 1968: student-worker uprisings, the occupation of the Sorbonne—a stronghold of out-worn pedagogical traditions. Intellectuals cast aside their differences and march in the streets. Their demands: new universities; improved curricula; access to schools for everyone, not...

(The entire section is 3727 words.)

Morag Shiach (Essay Date 1991)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Shiach, Morag. Introduction to Helene Cixous: A Politics of Writing, pp. 1-5. London: Routledge, 1991.

In the following essay, Shiach appraises both the feminine form and feminist content of Cixous’s writings and highlights the relationships between politics, sexuality, philosophy, and literature in Cixous’s works.

Hélène Cixous is a contemporary French writer, critic, and theorist, whose works span a number of genres and address a wide range of problems which have preoccupied the disciplines of English and French Studies over the last twenty years. In France she is best known as the author of a large number of...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

"The Laugh of the Medusa"

(Feminism in Literature)

"The Laugh of the Medusa"

MARGRET BRÜGMANN (ESSAY DATE 1993)

SOURCE: Brügmann, Margret. “Between the Lines: On the Essayistic Experiments of Hélène Cixous in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’” translated by Debbi Long. In The Politics of the Essay: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Elizabeth Mittman, pp. 73-84. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

In the following essay, Brügmann analyzes each section of Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa,” noting parallels between each of the seven sections and the biblical...

(The entire section is 6367 words.)

Illa

(Feminism in Literature)

MARTINE MOTARD-NOAR (ESSAY DATE 1994)

SOURCE: Motard-Noar, Martine. “From Persephone to Demeter: A Feminist Experience in Cixous’s Fiction.” In Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature, edited by Elizabeth T. Hayes, pp. 153-69. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.

In the following essay, Motard-Noar studies Cixous’s reclaiming of history and myths in her novel Illa through the deconstruction of male-based myths that relegate women to roles of passivity.

Hélène Cixous is one of the most controversial thinkers and writers in France. Despite her...

(The entire section is 6831 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)

Bibliography

Nordquist, Joan. French Feminist Theory. III, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous: A Bibliography. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Reference and Research Services, 1996, 72 p.

Bibliography of French writers Cixous and Luce Irigaray.

Criticism

Arens, Katherine. "From Caillois to 'The Laugh of the Medusa': Vectors of a Diagonal Science." Textual Practice 12, no. 2 (1998): 225-50.

Compares Jacques Derrida's, Michel Foucault's, and Jacques Lacan's theories with those of Cixous and examines Cixous's social and philosophical...

(The entire section is 495 words.)