Profile of a Feminist
This issue of Samyukta gives a profile of Hélene Cixous in its regular series on
‘Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time.
Write yourself. Your body must be heard. ‘
(Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’)
‘L’ ecriture feminine’— a concept that revolutionized feminist literary theory and practice in the 1970s — shot Hélene Cixous into prominence as one of literary theory’s major thinkers and a champion of freedom against repression of all kinds. Various causes interested her as avid readers found out – psychoanalytic readings, postmodernist literature, feminist causes, social, political, ethical and educational issues. Her texts dealt with almost anything and everything. No one text as she said carried the ‘totality of her message. It is the whole that makes sense’ (O’Grady, Interview, March 1996). Moreover, she wrote in multiple genres and she could not be classified into any one particular type of writer. She defied categorization.
Born in Algeria in 1937, Cixous was the daughter of a Jewish French colonialist father and an Austro-German mother. Though German was her first language, the Jews and the Jewish holocaust had a profound influence on her. In Algeria, Cixous experienced the subtle blending, interaction and affinity of different cultures, languages and peoples along with their differences. This led to a wide reading of philosophy and literature beyond national and linguistic boundaries. Thus she developed an enduring affinity for Shakespeare who is at the core of her academic formation in English literature. She also got deeply involved in the work of Stendhal and Joyce later.
Cixous’ commitment to teaching began in 1962 when she became assistant at the university of Bordeaux. In 1965 she became maOtre assistant at Sorbonne, Paris and in 1967 maOtre of conferences in Nanterre. At this time she published her first text God’s First Name (1967). In 1968 she became Doctor of Letters but published her thesis The Exile of James Joyce only in 1969 and she was appointed professor. She immediately got herself deeply involved in starting the experimental university of Paris VIII at Vincennes, a unique place of learning whose distinguished faculty included several post-structuralist critics such as Foucault, Genet, Todorov, Guittari and others. These writers, along with Shakespeare, Kafka, Tsvatayeva and above all Derrida and Clarice Lispector, made a deep impact on her writing. In 1969 along with Todorov and Guatteri she founded Poetique, a review magazine for experiments in text and reading. She also published several essays on the cause of women inspired by a friend Antoinette Fouque with the publishing house Des Femmes. Her wide reading especially of Heidegger also led her to take up other issues like Poetry and Language. In 1974 she founded the Centre of Women’s Studies, the first of its kind in Europe, all because she wanted to expand the scope of Language and Literature. In the 1980s she broke off with Des Femmes as she felt it limited her freedom. She published The Book of Prometheus (1983), a feminist rewriting of the Promethean myth. A meeting with the experimental theatre director Ariane Minouchkine made a decisive change in direction from Literature, Theory, women’s causes to the historical, the political and to what she calls ‘the scene of history’. Third World concerns, historical events and characters are explored in The Terrible But Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia
(1985) and The India of Their Dreams (1987). Essays like ‘The Place of Crime, The Place of Forgiveness’ (1987) also deal with political crimes, violence and death camps. Here there is also a discernible shift to ethical concerns. Research and training took her to universities all over the world to lecture and she received several honorary doctorates. In 1990 she started work on a secondary thesis on Robinson Jeffers in the University of California where she goes regularly for the Wellek lectures. In June 1998 the International Cultural Center at Cerisy-la-Salle held a colloquium on her work.
Cixous’ writing has been prolific (over fifty books and a hundred articles), but what is most distinctive about her work is that her methods and techniques have been strikingly innovative, from the beginning of her literary career. This innovation probably comes not only from her contact with post-structuralist and experimental writers but also from her own independent character, concerns and wide reading. Her thesis on Joyce is not only an appreciation of his techniques and linguistic structures but also a critique on his writing, which is inextricably caught up in anguish and guilt. For Joyce, despite man’s need for creativity in language, body and spirit, the movement to life begins with guilt and death or killing of the other. Cixous on the other hand emphasizes life, though of course she recognizes the fact that loss and death are inevitably bound to life. The text Angst (1977) which deals with the break-down of a love relationship, a traumatic period in her life, is written in an existential form. The form employed is a metaphoric exchange of letters. In To Live the Orange (1979), a bilingual text written in French and English simultaneously, she affirms the need and importance of sweet juices that will nourish the other. She manages to relate the orange to child and birth, to life and to the apple. The relation of reading and writing to all the senses is explained in detail. In the novel Inside (1986) for which she won the Prix Medicis and in the trilogy that followed — The Third Body, Beginnings and Neutre — the dialogue is kept open. The interaction of different voices and intertextual references with other texts replaces the monologue of authorial control. The method is reminiscent of Freud’s rewriting of Wilhelm’s love story Gradiva. Yet this imitation does not hinder her from questioning Freud’s power structures and libidinal economies, to advocate the freeing of the self through writing. In a similar manner she critiques Marx to demonstrate that the undoing of repression can be achieved only through a revaluation of the repression of the body, of women and of writing. She explores old ideas, critiques and explodes them and she often creates new concepts. The word ‘phallogocentric’ – a
combination of phallocentric and logocentric — was coined by Cixous and Luce Irigaray to combine the binary structures and language centred on the privileging of the Phallus by Freud and Lacan and the spoken words over the written by Derrida, She creates concepts like a new kind of bisexuality to critique Freud’s ideas on the male and female and l’ecriture feminine to force women to write themselves into history. Her Women’s Studies Centre was itself an innovation, to reorganize university structures, make literature interdisciplinary, intercultural and interlinguistic, to knock down all the partitions between literature, philosophy and languages, in fact to bring in other discourses also. She tries to relate desire and language, the body and language, theory and rhythm and several other ideas. Despite the fact that she critiques Derrida’s ideas on western cultural systems she has clearly stated that the greatest influences on her writing have been Derrida and Clarice Lispector. As she puts it ‘each of them occupies a sort of ideal place of writing for me, taking sexual difference into account, he occupying the space of a certain masculinity capable of femininity and she occupying the space of a femininity capable of masculinity’ (Interview, March 1996).
Cixous’ political commitments were as strong as her interest in theory research and teaching. ‘I was born political’ (Interview, March 1996), she says in an interview. In the 70s along with Foucault and others she wrote a text in defense of Pierre Goldman who was convicted of murder without adequate evidence. The essay, which decries the French legal system of the times, is reminiscent of famous earlier indictments like Kafka’s The Trial. Her political concerns deal with class struggles political repression and denial of freedom. When she speaks of class struggle her language is violent. She says that instead of ignoring it, we should ‘Split it open, spread it out, push it forward, fill it with the fundamental struggle so as to prevent the class struggle’, (‘The Laugh of the Medusa’). Her plays, written during the 80s, also bring to the forefront her response to repression. In the plays written in collaboration with Minouchkine she deals with a group of isolated people in Cambodia whose innocence led them to disaster. The India of Their Dreams (1986) deals with colonialism and non-violence. A major play of Cixous is on the Russian poetess Akhmatova (1990), a writer who died in the Revolution. Minouchine directed her televised film The Miraculous Night (1989). The fictional texts The Battle of Arcachon (1987) also deals with the visible and the invisible in politics and her lyrical account Manna (1988) is a tribute to Ossip Mandelstam, the Jewish Russian
poet who died under the Stalinist regime and also on the poet and fighter against apartheid Nelson Mandela.
The political, however has a wider meaning for Cixous as it is for Derrida who says, ‘Yes, my texts are political’ (Interview, March 1996). According to her, the political deals with the visible and the invisible. Media reports, historical political events, tyrants, repression of the body are visible. What is invisible is what happens in the interior, the family, within oneself and in the unconscious. As she puts it ‘One cannot divide for example human destiny between the introspective which would be non-political and then a sort of exterior which would be political…. A human subject has a destiny in so far as it is a human being citizen’ (Interview, March, 1996). She claims that her fictional texts resonate with ‘echoes of world history’ and that she began to write poetry as a ‘response to political tragedy’. A literary text becomes politically active when it influences publie opinion. In fact all writers feel that writing is a political gesture and hence very essential.
Cixous’ political and ideological stance becomes more firm and determined when it comes to the repression of women which for her is very similar to the death drive. In Nobody’s Name (1974), a collection of essays on Freud, Hoffman, Kleist, Poe and Joyce, she denounces dialectical structures and the privileging of the phallic subject in culture. In the text The Missexual, Where Am I Having Pleasure?(1976), published in Poetique, and in Her Arriva1 in Writing (1990), written in collaboration with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon, she problematises the subject of how feminine pleasure has been denied to women by men. Cixous reveals the attempts of writers to enclose women in
an economy or exchange dominated by the death drive. She proposes instead, an economy of gift since exchange is a social need and subjects always exist in differential relationships. Moreover no social change can be effected without linguistic change. The theme of new ways of exchange is more elaborately dealt with in The Newly Born Woman (1975) written jointly with Catherine Clement. The title is reminiscent of Genet who speaks of the equality of all human beings. Cixous’ book envisions the end of the sexual war, which inevitably leads to one partner succumbing to the other. For this she proposes a process of identification without fusion, where each partner is only altered, not engulfed by the other. She calls this ‘alterity’. Alterity keeps the other alive and provides space for the other.
To evolve a radical change women have to challenge the orthodoxies of patriarchy and ‘write themselves’. ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ begins with the claim ‘Woman must write herself, must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies’. Lacan’s and Saussure’s ideas are used by her [though she rejects their binary models] to redefine Freud’s idea of woman as lack. In fact she points out that woman is excess because she alone is capable of giving. She privileges the maternal as both the daughter and the mother who are in tune with each other. The mother is able to contain the child. The mother is the container and thé contained. But man’s relationship with the other is different. The Law Of Father is ruled by fear of castration.
Dora’s ‘no’ to Freud is important to Cixous as it is strategic and questions patriarchy. She makes full use of Dora’s sudden break with Freud, stopping her sessions with him in The Newly Born Woman, Portrait of the Sun (1974) and in a play Portrait of Dora (1977). Freud’s Dora disrupts the Law of the Father. Cixous uses ‘jouissance’, the Lacanian term to define female sexual pleasure, to denote the pleasure beyond language, beyond discourse, beyond patriarchy, unrepresentable in language but which is indeterminate and deconstructs the stability of language. Dora in a way is a forerunner of Medusa, the myth that Cixous uses in her celebrated essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975). In a powerful and violent use of language to criticize the western masculine world, she writes of how women have been ‘riveted between two horrifying myths, between the Medusa and the abyss’. ‘Women must write women,’ she declares,
in a statement that is both literal and metaphorical. Women must not only write about themselves but also woman as signifier must be connected to the symbolic order. In Sorties (1975) she suggests that ‘Organization by hierarchy makes all conceptual organization subject to man’ (Easthope 147) and binary oppositions depend on power and exclusion for their existence. These have affected the sexuality of men also and since gender structures have affected both sexes, these divisions have to be destroyed. For long, women who wrote have done so only from a masculine position. Hence there is an urgent need for producing feminine writing. In a new insurgent writing Cixous invents a new Derridean inspired concept, what she calls l’ecriture feminine.
L’ecriture feminine is a new concept, not because it speaks out against oppression of women or reiterates the fact that women have to write their own stories and writes themselves into history but because it is a complex subversive concept that opens up endless possibilities for feminine creativity and for new ways of writing. But the idea is not so easy to comprehend. Cixous herself says: ‘it is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing and this is an impossibility that will continue, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, encoded, coded — which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist'(qtd. in Easthope 156). It will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatisms’, (‘The Laugh of The Medusa’). Julia Jasken also confirms that Cixous ‘convinces us that in actually defining the term, we destroy its beauty’ (Jasken, Online). The style therefore is closer to poetry as it is too fluid and ‘slippery’. It works on literal
and metaphorical levels. In poetry language is set loose and signifiers flow freely without fixed meanings. Hence feminine writing will be a site of change and deconstruct the symbolic order and destroy linearity. The style of such a woman- centric writing would also be illusive and circular and can be used in rhetoric, literary criticism and theory.
Cixous relates feminine writing to the body. Writing is a biological act ‘Write! Writing is for you, you are for you: your body is yours, take it’, (‘The Laugh of The Medusa’, Online). In ‘Sorties’ she proclaims, ’woman must write her body’. In Rootprints she again insists on the bodily site of language: ‘it is as if the page were really inside—. As close as possible to the body’. In Coming to Writing, she uses the metaphor of childbirth to stress her point. ‘Writing is as if I had the urge to go on enjoying, to feel full, to push, to feel the force of my muscles and my harmony and at the same time to give myself the joys of parturition, the joys of both the mother and the child. The new theory is thus a phonetic inscription of the feminine body, its pulsions and flows, which will embrace all differences and accept the other.
In writing the body, desire and sexuality also come into play. Sexuality and language of communication are linked and there is a metaphysical fulfillment of desire. Gilbert says it is ‘a fusion of the erotic, the mystical and the political’ (Jasken, Online). Cixous claims that writing and desire is very intimate in certain states of being especially dreams, childhood and intoxication. Such speech/writing will dissolve all divisive concepts like speech and text, order and chaos, sense and nonsense. It would bring writers closer to the Real, to the mother’s body, to the breast, and hence Cixous uses the metaphor of ‘white ink’. Writing is thus linked to the mother’s voice and mother’s body. Hence l’ecriture feminine would be in non- linguistic modes, similar to song and rhythm.
Unconscious which (like female sexuality) has been repressed throughout the ages, ‘The origin of the metaphor is the unconscious’ (Cixous, ‘Rootprints’, Online). The Freudian theory is thus the starting point of Cixous’ provocative text. Sorties further elaborates on the connections between Women’s desire and Women’s language. Like the unconscious, women’s language is fluid and flows into chains of signifiers that cannot be fixed. ‘When women write, the huge resources of the unconscious will burst out…. The inexhaustible feminine. Imaginary is going to be deployed’ (Easthope 156). However the examples that Cixous points out of such writing and writers who have used this type are male.
The writing would also be transformative as it would usher in a new kind of bisexuality. The ‘other bisexuality’ is a post-structuralist concept inspired by Lacan and Derrida- Freud had argued that basically all humans were bisexual but when they enter into heterosexuality the distinctions of male and female appear. One gets subordinated to the other. This is a predetermined cultural phenomenon. Extreme Fidelity (1982) emphasizes the fact that the idea of sexual difference is located within culture. Hence Cixous insists on a change that is not androgyny but a new bisexuality. Here the phallogocentric order would disappear all gender distinctions would be dissolved. Women should make this happen through a kind of writing which she calls ‘sexts’ — a combination of sex and texts, a new word coined by Cixous. Through these sexts women can write their bodies and also establish direct connections with the unconscious.
Cixous’ theoretical discourse like most major theoretical texts is involved in word play and difficult to comprehend; yet Cixous stands out as a great writer because of her experimental writing and her genuine interest in poetry, writing and language. Very often her theoretical writing breaks the contours of prose and enters the realms of poetry and are ‘carried off by a poetic rhythm.’ She proudly claims: ‘I give myself a poet’s right, otherwise I wouldn’t dare to speak’ (O’Grady, Online). Writing itself is song and has a proximity to voice and exists in an abstract space. With a Keatsian echo Cixous claims: ‘What is most true is poetic because it is not stopped — stoppable… theory entails a discontinuity, a cut, which is altogether the opposite of life’. As she continues to the effect that she is not anathematizing all theory. ‘It is indispensable at times, to make progress but alone it is false’ (Cixous, ‘Rootprints’, Online). In her interview with Kathleen O’Grady, while talking of writers as guardians of the richness of language, Cixous comments that language is a country where politics is played out in the linguistic and poetic mode. Cixous also claims to be in the lineage of a revolutionary poet like Rimbaud. Despite the fact that Cixous’ poetic texts are not as popular as her
theoretical ones, she believes that the poetic mode is an ecstatic mode, indispensable to all writing.
Joyce’s idea of creating new languages and musicalizing literature was an early influence in his writing. Her reading of Heidegger made her concentrate on poetry and language. Her interest in the sublime and the low lessened the intensity of her militant writing as we see in the Wedding Preparations Beyond the Abyes (1978) With or the Art of Innocence (1981) and Lemonade All was so Infinite (1982). Her contact with Ariane Minouchknie taught her to recognize the orality of the human voice unrolling in texts. It led to an interest in the world of cinema and television. However these interests shaped her writing only because of her deep search for the mystery of life, language and writing.
Clarice Lispector was another contemporary writer through whose writing she started meditating on the relationship between life and writing. Together with Derrida she has an ‘an absolutely exceptional place’ in her writing. Cixous encountered in her a companion and a contemporary thinker. From her Cixous learnt the flowing quality of the world and her influence permeates her fictional texts like To Live the Orange (1979), Extreme Fidelity (1988) and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (1993).
‘People either know or don’t know that I have four or five forms of written expressions,’ she says in the Preface to The Hélene Cixous Reader to indicate her different style of expression and the different genres in which she wrote. The poetic permeates all her writing, as all her work is a search for the mystery of life and the concepts of poetry, language and writing. ‘When I begin to write, it always starts from something unexplained, mysterious’ (Cixous, ‘Rootprints’ Online) and the poetic mythical quality was evident in the first collection of her short stories Forerunners of God (1967). Here she does not refer to God in a religious sense but as a synonym for something beyond us, toward infinity. ‘Ultimately I think that no one can write without the aid of God, but what is it, God? Without the aid of writing, God-as-writing’ (O’Grady, Interview, March
1996). ‘Her writing style is inventive, playful and involves word play. She uses strategies of excess like laughter, contradiction, paradox, parody and metaphor to make her language complex. Her experiments with new ways of writing are included in Enter Writing (1986), where she draws a relationship with writing and painting. This relationship between writing and history is seen in Manna (1988), a tribute to Ossip Mandelstam and Nelson Mandela. Author and Writing is the subject of Days of the Year (1990). Writing thus serves as an experimental site for Cixous. In Rootprints, she excitedly calls Language ‘the biggest thing in the universe.’ It is ‘infinite’. What one can do with the smallest sign.’ Some people do not write because it is terrifying while others do so ‘because it’s intoxicating’ (‘Rootprints’ Online).
As Cixous continues to write, ever unfolding, ever evolving new ways of language and writing and adds to the literary oeuvre, her admirers as well as her detractors cannot but marvel at the sheer multiplicity of her interests and the voluminous nature of her works. ‘Her work is not an accomplishment of a lifetime but the culmination of several life times’ (O’Grady, Online). Her writing is a celebration of life, of freedom, of writing and of poetry. It is also a search for something beyond, beyond toward the future, toward perhaps infinity. There is no closure. It is interesting to speculate on where and how it will end. Perhaps her comment on how one can finish a text or a dream becomes relevant here:
What happens at the end of a text? …the author is in the book as we are in the dream’s boat… the dream has us, carries us, and, at a given moment it drops us…what we call texts escape us as the dream escapes us on waking, or the dream evades us in dreams. We follow it, things go at top speed, and we are constantly – what a giddy and delicious sensation! — surprised. In the dream as in the text, we go from one amazement to another. I imagine many texts are written completely differently, but I am only interested in the texts that escape. (‘Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing’ Online).
Helene Cixous, in her rare combination of roles as poet, theorist, philosopher, academician, feminist, the wild woman, political writer, playwright, moralist and so on, escapes us.
Cixous, Helene. ‘Biography/Bibliography/Resources/Links,’ http://www.egs.edu/
‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’http://www.beloit.edu/philorel/ faculty/
davidvessey/ Cixous41202.htm1 20.6.04
Selections from ‘Sorties’ in Easthope and McGowan, eds. A Critical and Cultural
Theory Reader. 146 — 159.
Conley, Verena Andermath. ‘HeleneCixous’.http://www.egs.edu/resources/cixous.html
Ensthope, Anthony and Kate McGowan, eds. (1992), A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, Open U P, Buckingham, 1996.
Jasken Julie. ‘An Introduction to Helene Cixous’. http://www.engl.niu.edu/wac/ cixous_intro.html 22.6.04
Klages, Mary. ‘Post-structuralist Feminist Theory’. http://www.colorado.edu/English/engl2010mk/cixous.lec.html 22.6.04
O’Grady, Kathleen. ‘Guardian of Language: An Introduction with Helene Cixous.
March 1996′. http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/wstudies/cixous/ 23.6.04
ESTHER JAYANTHI RAJ: Is Principal, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her area of interest is feminist literary theory. Has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.