Hélène Cixous  

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Hélène Cixous (born 5 June 1937) is a professor, French feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician. Cixous is best known for her article "The Laugh of the Medusa", which established her as one of the early thinkers in post-structural feminism. She founded the first centre of feminist studies at a European university at the Centre universitaire de Vincennes of the University of Paris (today's University of Paris VIII).

Hélène Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria, to a German Ashkenazi mother and Algerian Sephardic father. She earned her agrégation in English in 1959 and her Docteur en lettres in 1968. Her main focus, at this time, was English literature, and the works of James Joyce. In 1968 she published L'Exil de James Joyce ou l'Art du remplacement(English translation: The Exile of James Joyce). The following year she published Dedans (Inside), a semi-autobiographical novel, her first, that won the Prix Médicis. She is a professor at the University of Paris VIII, which she helped to found, and whose center for women's studies, the first in Europe, she founded. She has published widely, including twenty-three volumes of poems, six books of essays, five plays, and numerous influential articles. She published Voiles (Veils) with Jacques Derrida and her work is often considered deconstructive. In introducing her Wellek Lecture, subsequently published as Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Derrida referred to her as the greatest living writer in his language (i.e. the French language). Cixous wrote a book on Derrida titled Portrait de Jacques Derrida en jeune saint juif (Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint). In addition to Derrida and Joyce, she has written monographs on the work of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, Michel de Montaigne, Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, and the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

Cixous is considered one of the mothers of Poststructuralist Feminist Theory. This movement in critical theory was spearheaded by the writings of three "French feminists:" Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous.

In the 1970s, Cixous began writing about the relationship between sexuality and language. Like the other Poststructuralist Feminist Theorists, Cixous believes that our sexuality is directly tied to how we communicate in society. In 1975, Cixous published her most influential article "Le rire de la méduse." "The Laugh of the Medusa" was translated and released in English in 1976. She has published over 70 works; however, her fiction, dramatic writing, and poetry are not often read in English. The difficulty of translating her work may be minimally exemplified even by examining the title just discussed. Her reading of Derrida proceeds along similar lines, finding additional layers of meaning at a phonemic rather than strictly lexical level (these are not quite the same thing as puns, which play on the varied means of a word or phrase or the homonyms thereof, even though they bear some resemblance to them).


Influences on Cixous Writing

Due to her wide variety of interests, Cixous pulls ideas from all realms of academia. Some of the most notable influences on her writings have been: Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and Arthur Rimbaud. In order to truly understand all the layers that exist within Cixous writings, we must understand the fundamental principles that she is drawing on, or more importantly attempting to destroy.

Sigmund Freud

Psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud established the initial theories which would serve as a basis for some of Cixous' arguments in developmental psychology. Freud's analysis of gender roles and sexual identity concluded with separate male (Oedipus) and female (Electra) theories of which Cixous was particularly critical.

Female Electra Theory

For this developmental theory, Freud posed the question: What do women want? In Freud's mind all aspects of life centered around the penis, so Freud believed that everything would be fulfilled with the presence of a penis--thus coining the term "penis envy." This theory follows the young girl until she realizes that she does not have a penis, he believes this happens around the age of four. At this point, the young girl will reject clitoral stimulation because it does not require a penis. Prior to this discovery the young girl will prefer the company of her mother, however after she will reject her mother because she blames her for not being born with a penis.

In Freud's mind, girls must make the transition from clitoris to vagina in order to become a functioning adult woman. They will reject their mother, therefore redirect their desire from females to males and willingly choose the passive sexual role. Freud believes that a "normal" adult woman's sexual pleasure comes from that of being penetrated with a penis.

Male Oedipus Theory

This theory examines the transformation of a male child's natural love for his mother into sexual desire. Due to the oral stage of development, a male child will become fixated with his mother due to breast feeding. However the child sees his father as a rival for his mother's body, so Freud believes that the males child will feel resentment and aggression towards his father.

This theory is closely tied to Freud's Castration Complex which examines how the young boy will turn to pleasuring himself because he cannot sleep with his mother. The young boy will also be fearful of repercussions by his father if he is caught masturbating because he will know that he is doing it in substitution of his mother. This complex is expanded upon by another psycho-analyst, Jacques Lacan.

Jacques Lacan

In his Law of the Father, Lacan re-reads Freud's Castration Complex to understand how we obtain this image of "self" and where our desires come from.

Lacan believes that when we enter into language, which he terms the Symbolic, there is a deep 'split' that occurs in our unconscious self. This split will cause a gap between the language and our emotions. Therefore the Symbolic (language) will always occur outside of the self, so the subject will never be in control of it. According to Lacan, we will be perpetually seeking a way to fill or bridge that gap between our 'self' and the Symbolic. If we are never able to bridge the gap, we can never return to a state of "pure bliss" in which no split occurred. This gap is what Lacan defines as desire. We can never fill/reject our desires in order to become happy again because the 'self' can never exist outside of language.

Jacques Derrida

Through Derrida's deconstruction, he coined the term logocentrism. This is the concept that explains how language relies on a hierarchical system that values the spoken word over the written word in Western culture. The idea of binaries is essential to Cixous' position on language. The binary oppositions must have a term with more value in culture than the other.

Cixous and Luce Irigaray combined Derrida's logocentric idea with Lacan's symbol for desire to coin the term Phallogocentrism. This term focuses on Derrida's social structure of speech and binary opposition as the center of reference for language, with the phallic being privileged and how women are only defined by what they lack; not A vs. B, but, rather A vs. not-A

The Bibliothèque nationale de France

In 2000, Cixous donated the entirety of her manuscripts to date to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which created a collection in her name. Her manuscripts were featured in the exhibit "Brouillons d'écrivains," at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2001. In 2003, the conference "Genèses Généalogies Genres: Autour de l'oeuvre d'Hélène Cixous" was held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Among the speakers were Mireille Calle-Gruber, Marie Odile Germain, Jacques Derrida, Annie Leclerc, Ariane Mnouchkine, Ginette Michaud, and Hélène Cixous.

Major Works

The Laugh of the Medusa (1975)

This text, Le Rire de la Meduse, was first written in French in 1975 and was later translated into English by Keith and Paula Cohen in 1976. Cixous is issuing her female readers an ultimatum of sorts: either they can read it and choose to stay trapped in their own bodies by a language that does not allow them to express themselves, or they can use their bodies as a way to communicate.

"The Laugh of the Medusa," an extremely literary essay, is well-known as an exhortation to a feminine mode of writing (the phrases "white ink" and "écriture féminine" are often cited, referring to this desired new way of writing). It is a strident critique of "logocentrism" and "phallogocentrism," having much in common with Jacques Derrida's slightly earlier thought. The essay also calls for an acknowledgment of universal bisexuality, or polymorphous perversity, which is clearly a precursor of queer theory's later emphases; and it swiftly rejects many kinds of essentialism which were still common in Anglo-American feminism at the time. The essay also exemplifies Cixous's style of writing in that it is richly intertextual, making a wide range of literary allusions.

Sorties (1975)

Bibliography of Works

Unless otherwise indicated, the city of publication is Paris.


Le Prénom de Dieu, Grasset, 1967.
Dedans, Grasset, 1969.
Le Troisième Corps, Grasset, 1970.
Les Commencements, Grasset, 1970.
Un vrai jardin, L'Herne, 1971.
Neutre, Grasset, 1972.
Tombe, Le Seuil, 1973.
Portrait du Soleil, Denoël, 1973.
Révolutions pour plus d'un Faust, Le Seuil, 1975.
Souffles, Des femmes, 1975.
La, Gallimard, 1976.
Partie, Des femmes, 1976.
Angst, Des femmes, 1977.
Préparatifs de noces au-delà de l'abîme, Des femmes, 1978.
Vivre l'orange, Des femmes, 1979.
Ananké, Des femmes, 1979.
Illa, Des femmes, 1980.
With ou l'Art de l'innocence, Des femmes, 1981.
Limonade tout était si infini, Des femmes, 1982.
Le Livre de Promethea, Gallimard, 1983.
La Bataille d'Arcachon, Laval, Québec, 1986.
Manne, Des femmes, 1988.
Jours de l'an, Des femmes, 1990.
L'Ange au secret, Des femmes, 1991.
Déluge, Des femmes, 1992.
Beethoven à jamais, ou l'éxistence de Dieu, Des femmes, 1993.
La Fiancée juive, Des femmes, 1997.
OR. Les lettres de mon père, Des femmes, 1997.
Voiles, avec Jacques Derrida, Galilée, 1998.
Osnabrück, Des femmes, 1999.
Les Rêveries de la femme sauvage. Scènes primitives, Galilée, 2000.
Le Jour où je n'étais pas là, Galilée, 2000.
Benjamin à Montaigne. Il ne faut pas le dire, Galilée, 2001.
Manhattan. Lettres de la préhistoire, Galilée, 2002.
Rêve je te dis, Galilée, 2003.
L'Amour du loup et autres remords, Galilée, 2003.
Tours promises, Galilée, 2004.
L'amour même dans la boîte aux lettres, Galilée, 2005.
Hyperrêve, Galilée, 2006.


La Pupulle, Cahiers Renaud-Barrault, Gallimard, 1971.
Portrait de Dora, Des femmes, 1976.
Le Nom d'Oedipe. Chant du corps interdit, Des femmes, 1978.
La Prise de l'école de Madhubaï, Avant-scène du Théâtre, 1984.
L'Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge, Théâtre du Soleil, 1985.
Théâtre, Des femmes, 1986.
L'Indiade, ou l'Inde de leurs rêves, Théâtre du Soleil, 1987.
On ne part pas, on ne revient pas, Des femmes, 1991.
Les Euménides d'Eschyle, traduction, Théâtre du Soleil, 1992.
L'Histoire (qu'on ne connaîtra jamais), Des femmes, 1994.
"Voire Noire Voile Blanche / Black Sail White Sail", bilingual, trad. Catherine A.F. MacGillivray, New Literary History 25, 2 (spring), Minnesota University Press, 1994.
La Ville parjure ou le Réveil des Érinyes, Théâtre du Soleil, 1994.
Tambours sur la digue, Théâtre du Soleil, 1999.
Rouen, la Trentième Nuit de Mai '31, Galilée, 2001.


  • L'Exil de James Joyce ou l'Art du remplacement (doctoral thesis), Grasset, 1969.
  • Prénoms de personne, Le Seuil, 1974.
  • The Exile of James Joyce or the Art of Replacement, Translation of L'exil de Joyce ou l'art du remplacement. Transated by Sally Purcell. New York: David Lewis, 1980.
  • Un K. Incompréhensible: Pierre Goldman, Christian Bourgois, 1975.
  • La Jeune Née, with Catherine Clément, 10/18, 1975.
  • La Venue à l'écriture, with Madeleine Gagnon and Annie Leclerc, 10/18, 1977.
  • Entre l'écriture, Des femmes, 1986.
  • L'Heure de Clarice Lispector, Des femmes, 1989.
  • Photos de racines, with Mireille Calle-Gruber, Des femmes, 1994.
  • Portrait de Jacques Derrida en Jeune Saint Juif, Galilée, 2001.
  • Le Tablier de Simon Hantaï, 2005.
  • Insister. À Jacques Derrida, Galilée, 2006.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hélène Cixous" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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