Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

"The Laugh of the Medusa" is an article written by French philosopher and feminist critic Hélène Cixous.

In the text, Cixous advocates heavily for the idea that women need to write. She claims that there is a very close relationship between women's bodies and their writing and that both have...

(The entire section contains 1733 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

"The Laugh of the Medusa" is an article written by French philosopher and feminist critic Hélène Cixous.

In the text, Cixous advocates heavily for the idea that women need to write. She claims that there is a very close relationship between women's bodies and their writing and that both have been repressed by men for centuries. For Cixous, women beginning to write would also be the beginning of them reclaiming their voices and their bodies.

Men, Cixous claims, have dominated religion, science, logic, reason, and writing, directly or indirectly, for hundreds of years. Everything from the "publishing houses [that] are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs" to the "history of reason" and "the religion of the father" has been dominated by men and has been "one with the phallocentric tradition."

Since men have dominated the written word for so long, and since Cixous believes that men repress and reduce women because they are afraid of them, Cixous claims that women have been taught to hate themselves and other women. She believes that women have allowed themselves to buy into these male ideologies and have internalized them to their own detriment.

Cixous claims that women must write because "there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity." She writes:

I wished that that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst—burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn't open my mouth, I didn't repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! What's the meaning of these waves, these floods, these outbursts? Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naivete, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentrism, hasn't been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a . . . divine composure), hasn't accused herself of being a monster?

By writing, Cixous believes, women can reclaim themselves. Instead of being painted as weak and lacking, or as frightful monsters like Medusa, they can share the full wealth of their experience and redefine what it means to be feminine. Through writing, women can rewrite the "history of life somewhere else." According to Cixous, writing and creating a feminine empire of writing would allow women to redefine their relationships with men, with the world, and with themselves.

Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242

Hélène Cixous, in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” advocates new ways of thinking and writing about women and literature. The essay has become a staple of feminist criticism because of its incisive critique of patriarchal politics, its endorsement of a feminist philosophy that is grounded in poststructuralism and psychoanalytic theory, and its modeling or representation of the possibilities of écriture féminine (“feminine writing”)—what Cixous calls white ink. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is also a call to arms, urging women to reclaim their bodies and, by extension, their desires and identities through writing.

Concerned with traditional representations of women by men in literature and other scholarly texts, Cixous begins her analysis by invoking the classical figure of Medusa, but she does so by refiguring how Medusa has been represented through the ages. In this way, Cixous reclaims her. Traditionally, Medusa has been portrayed as a physical and moral monster; with snakes in place of hair, Medusa turns the men who look upon her to stone. However, Cixous’s Medusa laughs, which is both a joyful and a disruptive act that can lead to new directions for women’s (feminist) writing. From the first paragraph, women’s writing is positioned as both liberating and intervening.

Phallocentrism, a male-dominated, masculine-coded linguistic and philosophical system—or, to put it more simply, male bias—keeps women from accessing their own stories. Without this access, women lack knowledge of the multiple ways to be; women, thus, have no body and are thus nobody. It is imperative, Cixous argues, that a woman must, broadly speaking, “write her self” and “put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” Essentially, Cixous calls upon women to assert themselves in writing and in the world by leaving their literary imprint, and she speaks in terms associated with revolution. Among Cixous’s aims are to “break up” and “destroy” and “to foresee the unforeseeable, to project.” Thus, her agenda in “The Laugh of the Medusa” is to call into question and break from the existing literary and social order and to embrace a new vision for women and literature through the form and content of her own essay.

Cixous has been criticized for what some see as essentialist tendencies in her work, meaning that she perceives women as biologically determined and universally similar. While Cixous does reference psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, she moves away from their absolutism. Instead, she emphasizes plurality and multiplicity. Cixous, in arguing that there is no “general” or “typical” woman, focuses her study on what women have in common: a history ofexclusion and a legacy of limited agency and visibility.

Cixous discusses the female body and women’s sexuality in connection with writing for several reasons: Women are driven away both from their own bodies and from their own sexualities, sexuality informs and works in tandem with writing, and women’s sexuality and women’s writing are distinctly female. That which is beautiful in women’s lived experiences and in writing cannot be fully expressed or claimed until the taboo is lifted on women’s corporeal desires and sexualities—a taboo that makes women feel ashamed of their bodies, and their work. More important, Cixous declares, by reclaiming their bodies, women will take back what is rightfully theirs.

The conception of women and writing, wherein Cixous fuses the body and the mind, dismantles the Cartesian notion of a mind/body split. Cixous is invested in unifying the figure of woman by making her whole, and so her theoretical stance is opposed to the binary opposition of mind and body. She underscores the affirmative nature of her enterprise and refutes the notion, proposed by Freud, that women are lacking power (and, by extension, worth or value) without the phallus and are, as Cixous clarifies, “deprived” and “wounded.” In this conception, the symbolic power of the phallus leaves women disempowered because it entraps them between two “horrifying” myths: the Medusa and the abyss. Cixous suggests that, because men have been the mythmakers in Western culture, it is imperative that women assume the role of mythmaking and revise the existing narratives so that “history [can] change its meaning.” Rather than accept Medusa as the monster who defines femininity, Cixous resituates Medusa, causing her to be both “beautiful” and, symbolically, “laughing.” This laughter is disruptive and playful, and it mirrors the abstract principles Cixous sets out for women’s writing, the agenda of which will disrupt existing ideologies and established texts and exude playfulness and joyfulness in the process.

Unlike phallocentrism, Cixous argues, women’s writing cannot be pinned down. However, it is clear that Medusa the monster gives way in Cixous’s essay to the beautiful, laughing, loving, and flying mother figure. For Cixous, writing is both an intellectual and a bodily act that takes into account female desire, experience, sisterhood, and love. The body is featured as the trope par excellence. To a lesser extent, Cixous uses the image of water to describe women’s writing. Water has long been associated with femininity (that is, women’s cycles, life-giving properties) and feminism (that is, encompassing nature, unfixed qualities, transformative nature, multiple characteristics). What is most classically feminist, though, about Cixous’s essay is her admonition to women that they should have a choice: They should choose, for example, whether or not to become mothers (and, for Cixous, becoming a mother is an esteemed responsibility).

The experimental style of “The Laugh of the Medusa” mirrors its content: Cixous puts into practice her theory of white ink. In her notion of white ink, she embraces aspects of female experience that have been denigrated: sexuality, sisterhood, and motherhood. White ink, a metaphor for écriture féminine, is likened to the “good mother’s milk.” In this way, white ink is marked writing; it designates the writing from the female body that Cixous advocates. As such, white ink is associated with breast milk. It is nourishing although, abstractly, difficult to define and read because it is almost invisible. White ink appears as experimental writing because it thwarts traditional forms and subject matter in its objective of capturing female experience, psychology, and desire. It is more closely associated with the psychoanalytic realm of the imaginary/semiotic, a place associated with the womb and the baby’s experience of and connection with the mother’s body, where all desires and needs are met and the baby is unified with the mother. Conversely, the black ink of phallocentrism is associated with the psychoanalytic realm of the symbolic, where behavior and meanings are ordered according to a male system of rules and punishment. Because writing is, in some way, a record of a life lived, Cixous sanctions white ink and feminist theory by producing a feminist essay that is radical in both its content and form.

Women need to write in their own language about their own lives. This radical tenet leads Cixous to explain that the metaphor of flying belongs to women solely: Women have had to fly stealthily in the past to “possess anything,” but now they can fly openly, even soar, in language. In other words, women need to liberate themselves in writing and through writing. In short, white ink and Cixous’s feminist politics will require a reorienting of self and reading strategies: The objective of “The Laugh of the Medusa” is to “break up the [supposed] ’truth’ with laughter.’”

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Laugh of the Medusa Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Next

Themes