Presidential Lectures: Hélène Cixous: Essays: Conley
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HÉLÈNE CIXOUS (1937- )


By Verena Andermatt Conley*

Hélène Cixous was born on June 5, 1937, in Oran, Algeria. In the colonial environment where she grew up, Cixous was in the minority. Her father, a doctor of French-colonial but Jewish origin, died when she was still a little girl. This event marked all of her writing. Her mother, Eve, now living in Paris, was of Austro-German origin, and German, rather than French, is Cixous's native tongue. Cixous continues to insist that for her, German is a richer, more guttural language than the more abstract idiom of French. Members of her family were Sephardic Jews, and she lived through the persecutions of World War II. Subsequently, Cixous never lost her desire to fight the encroachment of power in all of its forms upon the human body and the human mind. She felt the need to break out of the world in which she was born and look for other worlds or realities less marked by the horrors of the political events of her childhood. She found these worlds in fiction. Sensitive to power at institutional levels--familial, academic, political--she has striven to find out where, historically, such repression occurs and how exclusions are articulated. In addition to reading myths and the German romantics, such as Heinrich von Kleist, Cixous began to study English literature, especially Shakespeare, whose passionate and diverse writings held much attraction. Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, with their scenes of transformations between man and woman, father and daughter, marked her.

Cixous went to study in France and began her career as an academic. In 1959, at the age of twenty-two, she passed the prestigious agrégation in English. She married and had two children, a daughter and a son, born in 1959 and 1962. In 1962 she became assistante at the Université de Bordeaux. In 1965 she and her husband were divorced and Cixous moved from Bordeaux to Paris. She was maître assistante at the Sorbonne from 1965 to 1967 and was appointed maître de conférences at Nanterre in 1967. Also in 1967 she published her first text, Le Prénom de Dieu (God's First Name). In 1968 she became docteur ès lettres. She was appointed chargé de mission to found the experimental Université de Paris VIII-Vincennes, now at Saint Denis, in the aftermath of the student riots of May 1968. An alternative to the traditional and, in the view of many, repressive French academic environment, Paris VIII was to be a center of learning where power structures and hierarchies would be kept to a minimum. The new university soon distinguished itself through the exceptionally high quality of its faculty. Since 1968 Cixous has been professor of English literature at Paris VIII. There, in 1974, she founded the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines, which she is still chairing.

In 1969, Cixous founded with Tzvetan Todorov and Gérard Genette the experimental review Poétique, which soon became a forum for new ways of reading texts on both sides of the Atlantic. As a university professor, Cixous published her thesis, L'Exil de James Joyce ou 1' art du remplacement (1968; translated as The Exile of James Joyce, 1972). Also in 1969, Cixous published her novel Dedans (Inside, 1986), for which she was awarded the prestigious Prix Médicis. Since then she has published close to fifty novels and plays and some more theoretical essays like La Jeune Née (1975; translated as The Newly Born Woman, 1986), the best known of Cixous's texts to date in the United States. Cixous continues to be the champion of freedom in her writings. The causes she espouses vary. From a need for personal liberation through a reading of psychoanalysis, she moves on to more collective struggles, the woman's cause, an interest in the Third World (expressed in her interest in Clarice Lispector and Nelson Mandela and in her plays on Cambodia or India), the German and Russian death camps (through Paul Celan, Ossip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva, Anna Akhmatova). Her involvement in these causes is paralleled by other textual and personal encounters: the philosophical texts of Jacques Derrida help her develop her own textual readings; her encounters with Antoinette Fouque, one of the most prominent figures in the women's movement in France, a psychoanalyst and founder of the French publishing house Des Femmes, who, for political reasons, never wrote a work of her own; Ariane Mnouchkine, the director of the experimental Théâtre du Soleil with whom Cixous has been collaborating for the past decade. Cixous conceives of her life as a constant search for new ways of emancipating the self and others, along with an ongoing discovery of the "mystery of life." The "themes" of her work are therefore intricately linked to her meditations and cannot simply be abstracted. What sets Cixous apart from many of her contemporaries is her insistence on, and celebration of, life rather than death.

MAJOR THEMES

Cixous's work does not deal with "themes" in any standard sense of the term. "Theme," for her always between quotation marks, deals with ways of inscribing life or death and with articulating the two. Her privileging of life is accompanied by a growing insistence on the fictional and the poetic. The poetic for her, though distinct from the fictional or from theater is not limited to verse. It deals with deliverance from social stigmas through a freeing of language, through invention of new ways of speaking and writing, as well as other ways of seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting. It is always her relationship with the other, with otherness, that allows for an opening. A transformation of the dynamics of self and other constitutes the political dimension underlying all of her writing. That transformation follows a general shift, in her words, from "the scene of the unconscious to that of history, " or from the autobiographical "write yourself!" to theater dealing with history. This shift in Cixous's work is similar to that taking place on the French intellectual scene over the last twenty years or so. Cixous's trajectory, a combination of a fight for life and a meditation on writing, leads her through various causes: the freeing of the self under the impact of psychoanalysis, the freeing of women, legal injustice in France around the trial of the Jewish immigrant Pierre Goldman, the cause of the Third World, the exposure of torture in the death camps.

As a young professor of English, Hélène Cixous published articles on English literature in Tel Quel and wrote her thesis on James Joyce. Cixous never hid her ambivalence toward Joyce. On the one hand, she was interested in his techniques, his belief that transformations of linguistic structures would alter mental structures, and his awareness of ideological and political manipulations through language. On the other, she always marked her distance from a writing caught up in guilt and the anguish of paradox. Though Joyce influenced her work through his insistence on the necessity to create new languages, on musicalizing literature and joining body and spirit, she criticized him for his creative paradox: for Joyce, one must lose in order to have. In other words, one must kill in order to live, and the movement to life starts with a killing of the other, with death and with guilt. This concept differs significantly from Cixous's recognition that even though loss and death are inevitable and indeed necessary for life, the emphasis must be on life.

Cixous's first fictional texts, Dedans (1969), and especially her trilogy, Le Troisième Corps, Les Commencements, and Neutre (The Third Body, Beginnings, and Neuter), published from 1970 to 1972, mark a period of great hope. In the aftermath of May 1968, everything seemed possible. Writing under the sign of Marx and Freud or of political and libidinal economies, Cixous questions power structures and advocates a freeing of self and -- or through -- writing. Written at a time when the euphoria of new discoveries outweighed theoretical divergences, these texts combine many incompatible theories. The freeing of the subject and the undoing of repression go along with a reevaluation of what has been repressed: body, woman, writing.

Dialogue among different voices, and, in the form of intertextual references, with other writings, replaces the monologue of authorial control to keep the text open. In Le Troisième Corps, for example, the voice of the lover echoes that of other fictional lovers, especially those of Kleist's Jeronimo and the count F. from "Das Erdbeben in Chili" (The Earthquake in Chile) and "Die Marquise von O" (The Marquise of O), respectively. Freud's rewriting of Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva, a love story dealing with fetishism, entombment, entrapment, and life and death in the archeological setting of Pompeii, examining passion in its relation to life and death, also haunts Cixous's text.

Cixous's political and ideological commitments made her take a stand in the 1970s on a trial that polarized the French, that of Pierre Goldman, accused, without sufficient evidence, of murder. Cixous, like Foucault and others, wrote in his defense. Un K. incompréhensible: Pierre Goldman (An Incomprehensible Kase: Pierre Goldman, 1975), the letter K playing on echoes from Kafka's Der Prozess (The Trial) and "Vor dem Gesetz" (Before the Law), is a violent outcry against prejudice in the French legal system.

Her stance against repression and social injustice, which she sees as one with the death drive, led Cixous to espouse the cause of women. In her theoretical Prénoms de personne (Nobody's Name, 1974), a collection of essays on Freud, Hoffmann, Kleist, Poe, and Joyce, she deals with the association of the unified (phallic) subject, narcissism and death. She denounces in her readings of Poe and Joyce the attempt to put woman on the side of death. She shows how these writers' dialectical structures enclose women in a "limited economy" and an exchange dominated by a desire for death. To this, she opposes a general economy, a term that Georges Bataille, the contemporary French writer and philosopher, popularized via his works on anthropology and psychoanalysis. Cixous proposes an economy of the gift, related to spending and loss. Because for Cixous and other contemporary theoreticians the subject exists only in a differential relationship with other subjects, the insistence is on modes of exchange. Exchange, thought of in terms of giving and receiving, plays a crucial role in the woman question. How does one give, how does one receive? What, in such an exchange, is the relationship to alterity and the other? How does exchange affect language and writing? Like many contemporary writers and thinkers, Cixous believes that there is no possible social change -- one with new ways of exchanging -- without linguistic change.

Emphasis on new ways of exchanging and an affirmation of life function as the most important concerns of La Jeune Née (1975), by Cixous and Catherine Clément. The title La Jeune Née plays on Là-je-nais, there I am being born, and La Genet, a reference to the writer Jean Genet, whose poetic writings insist on the general equality of all human beings. In La Jeune Née, Cixous insists on the necessity of displacing the desire for recognition, always based on sexual war, which ends, symbolically, with the succumbing of one of the partners. To this, she opposes a desire for alterity, by which, through a journeying toward the other, through a process of identification without fusion, the self goes as far as possible toward the other, lets herself be altered by the other, yet does not become the other. This desire keeps the other alive. To bring about change, Cixous urges women to break their silence, to "write themselves." They must write their bodies, their desires, which heretofore have only been talked about by men. Freud's Dora is a central concern in La Jeune Née. Dora's "no," which terminates prematurely and on her own volition her sessions with Freud, leaves the latter despondent and defensive. Dora's "no" stops momentarily the familial merry-go-round of lies and adultery. It also strips Freud of his authority. Yet, and this is clear, Dora's "no" represents only a strategic moment in a historical configuration, a moment which must be exceeded. Dora is a major preoccupation in Portrait du soleil (Portrait of the Sun, 1974) and in a play, Portrait de Dora, performed at the Théâtre d'Orsay in 1975, published in 1976, and translated in 1977. It puts Freud on stage to show the analyst's own projections in his treatment of Dora and his writings on her.

Feminine pleasure, which has been denied to women and confiscated by men, is a preoccupation of such texts as "La Missexualité, où jouis-je?" (The Missexual, Where Am I Having Pleasure?), published in Poétique in 1976, and La Venue à l'écriture (Her Arrival in Writing, 1977; translated 1990), written in collaboration with Annie Leclerc and Madeleine Gagnon. In the latter, playing on la venue, she who has come, and l'avenue, the path, Cixous traces the origin of women's writing to the mother's voice and body.

In Souffles (Breath, 1975) --the title evokes breath, inspiration, rhythm--Cixous proposes to analyze the origin of writing in terms of a mother/daughter relationship. Men have made women into hysterics; they have vitiated the relationships between women, especially between mother and daughter. Cixous insists on the origin of writing as song, as something that comes from the body. Souffles insists on the necessity of rewriting mythology, the Bible, and literary history from a feminine point of view.

Cixous's personal difficulties contributed to the 1977 text Angst, which deals with the breakdown of a love relationship. The pain and anguish are not expressed in existential, representational terms, but in a metaphoric exchange of letters. The text, as always one of transformation, led Cixous to another phase in her consideration of women's issues. For the next few years Cixous espoused the cause of women in a more militant language, and her work appeared almost exclusively under the imprint of the publishing house Des Femmes, where Cixous enjoyed a close association with Antoinette Fouque, founder of a controversial but influential political group within the women's movement called Politique et Psychanalyse ("Psych et po"). She explained her decision to espouse the woman's cause in more militant fashion in an interview (published in Verena Andermatt Conley, Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, 1984 and 1990) as reflecting her having attained an intellectual limit which, she felt, had to be surpassed. Consequently she developed a more marked interest in relationships among women, because, as she says, any liberation of women has to come from women, though men are never completely absent in her writing.

Cixous's work from this period intersects with both Derrida's essay on Kant, "Economimesis," in Mimesis désarticulation (1975) and Jean-François Lyotard's Economie libidinale (1974). The attributes masculine and feminine will eventually be replaced by other descriptive terms which make no reference to sexual difference, she believes. In this time of transition, Cixous clearly privileges women, capable, in her terms, of giving. She redefines the maternal. The daughter is always in tune with the mother. The woman gives because she nourishes the child. Because she is able to contain the child, the mother is both container and contained; her relationship to otherness is different from that of men, to whom things happen from the outside.

In her works from the late l970s and early 1980s, influenced by her reading of Heidegger on poetry and language, Cixous asks and works through questions of knowledge, innocence, the law, life, and death in Préparatifs de noces au-dela de l'abîme (Wedding Preparations Beyond the Abyss, 1978), Anankè (1979), Illa (1980), With ou l'art de l'innocence (With or the Art of Innocence, 1981), and Limonade tout était si infini (Lemonade All Was So Infinite, 1982). Her militancy has taken a different turn. Less concerned with flight, flow, and abundance, she now meditates on the sublime and develops the notion of the infinitely small.

In the 1970s Cixous also discovered the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector. Meditating on the relationship between life and writing, Lispector put emphasis on the flowing quality of the word and on the origin of--or, as Cixous says, the arrival in--language and writing. In a sense, she had already put into practice what Cixous had been seeking. Cixous's article in Poétique, "L'Approche de Clarice Lispector," appeared in 1979, the same year as the bilingual text Vivre l'orange/To Live the Orange, which insists on sweet nourishing juices and on the necessity of keeping the other alive. In this work, the orange is closely related to the child and birth, to life, as well as to that other paradisiacal fruit, the apple, read simultaneously in English and French as fruit and calling, as apple and appel. Orange, as noun and adjective, as fruit and color, functions as a locus of correspondences of sight, touch, smell, taste, affecting reading and writing.

A break with Antoinette Fouque in the early 1980s prompted Cixous to leave Des Femmes temporarily. Her relationship with the publishing house had been increasingly strained. Cixous claims that she resented the limits a certain militancy imposed on her freedom. Another text, Le Livre de Promethea (The Book of Promethea or Promethea's Book, 1983; translated 1990), written after her encounter with Ariane Mnouchkine, the director of the experimental Théâtre du Soleil, marks a turn. The book is a celebration of their encounter and a feminine rewriting of the Promethean myth, which, along with the myths of Orpheus and Ulysses, has figured prominently in literature. Le Livre de Promethea marks the culmination of a search for a positive passion, for a positive love and a language that touches lightly, intermittently, without seizing or appropriating, but infusing with life. The Promethean myth, from its epic dimensions of freeing the world and mankind, is transposed to quotidian passion, to detail, to a market scene, to fruits and flowers.

Cixous's encounter with Mnouchkine proved decisive. Mnouchkine was known for her innovative productions of Shakespeare, linking the Elizabethan stage with Far Eastern techniques. The collaboration also marks in Cixous's production a shift toward what she calls the "scene of history." With Mnouchkine, Cixous traveled to Cambodia to study a group of people that had been disinherited by their neighbors. Cixous's and Mnouchkine's play L'histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk roi du Cambodge (The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia), performed in 1984, is the story of a people that had lived in happiness and who paid for their innocence with their lives. Always haunted by the notion of paradise, Cixous found in Cambodia the remnants of a people who had lived according to these ethics. Such an overtly political play is a continuation of Cixous's fight against all forms of bodily and spiritual repression. The play is infused with a contemporary reading of the concept of freedom which, for Cixous, is linked to poetry and writing. L'Indiade ou l'lnde de leurs rêves (The Indiad or India of Their Dreams), a play produced in 1986, deals with problems of colonialism, the liberation of India, and nonviolence.

Today, Cixous's major impact may be said to be on the stage, and a new play, Akhmatova (1990), about the Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, who was caught in the Revolution, develops further in the direction of theater. A script written for a televised film directed by Mnouchkine, La Nuit miraculeuse (The Miraculous Night, 1989), about the heritage of 1789, adds a new twist, that is, an opening to the world of cinema and television. Cixous's historical and political contributions, possibly under the influence of Ariane Mnouchkine, are now her most compelling. Yet, she herself is more at ease in, and derives more pleasure from, the writing of fiction. La Bataille d'Arcachon (The Battle of Arcachon, 1987) extends her experiments with new ways of writing about love, of linking absence and presence, self and other. She also produced Entre l'écriture (Between Writing, or Enter Writing, 1986), a collection of new and previously published meditations on writing and painting. She has also focused on the relationship between writing and history in her lyrical account Manne (Manna, 1988), a tribute to Ossip Mandelstam, the Jewish Russian poet who died under the Stalinist regime, and the poet and fighter against apartheid, Nelson Mandela. A recently published work, Jours de l'an (Days of the Year, 1990), returns to a meditation on authorship, on the relation between author and writing, something dear to Cixous but that seems less pressing today than other more political issues raised in her plays.

SURVEY OF CRITICISM

In French, Claudine Fisher's La Cosmogonie d'Hélène Cixous is a painstaking and possibly the most complete explication to date of many of Cixous's writings. Another volume entirely devoted to Cixous consists of the proceedings of a conference organized in her name at the Utrecht Summer School of Critical Theory, entitled Hélène Cixous, chemins d'une écriture. Articles have appeared in many reviews, such as Critique and Poétique. Among the best is Lucette Finas's "Le Pourpre du neutre," reprinted in her Le Bruit d'Iris. Christiane Makward, in "Structures du silence ou délire: Marguerite Duras, Hélène Cixous," performs a Lacanian reading in an analysis of the two women writers. It appears that it is in Great Britain and in the United States that Cixous's work has attracted the most critical attention, especially around issues of feminism. In Great Britain, the chapter in Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics entitled "Cixous: An Imaginary Utopia" tries to take Cixous to task for being essentialist and for not tying her writing to a precise political and social context. A recent article by Morag Sihach, "Their 'Symbolic' exists, it holds power--we, the sowers of disorder, know it only too well," in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, rehabilitates Cixous. Though Sihach mainly concentrates on La Jeune Née, she extends her article to Cixous's more recent plays. Writing Differences, edited by Susan Sellers, consists of articles by Cixous and her students. It illustrates how students can read in Cixous's way. The proceedings of a British conference organized around Hélène Cixous in Liverpool in 1989 have been published under the title The Body and the Text: Hélène Cixous Reading and Teaching (1990). The volume includes many sympathetic articles on and around Cixous.

In the United States, chapters have appeared in works such as Jane Gallop's The Daughter's Seduction; Dina Sherzer's "Postmodernist Feminist Fiction," in her Representation in Contemporary French Fiction; and Domna C. Stanton's, "Language and Revolution: The Franco-American Disconnection," in The Future of Difference. My own study, Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, presents Cixous to American readers. For a more critical overview that historicizes Cixous without being antagonistic, see my introductions to Cixous's Reading with Clarice Lispector and Readings.



* Excerpted from Sartori, Eva, and Dorothy Zimmerman, Editors. French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, 66-73. The bibliography has not been included.


©1991 Greenwood Press. All rights reserved.


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