Helene Cixous

Helene Cixous is a French feminist writer, professor, poet, playwright and literary critic. She wrote numerous novels, plays and essays. She is a professor at the European graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she opened the first center for women's studies in Europe.

Cixous was born to a Jewish family in 1937 in French Algeria. German was her first language. She studied English literature, focusing especially on the works of Shakespeare and James Joyce. Other authors she admired include Franz Kafka, Clarice Lispector and Marina Tsvetaeva. She attended school in France and became an assistant at the Université de Bordeaux in 1962.

Cixous then moved to Paris, where her first work, Le Prénom de Dieu (God's First Name), was published in 1967. She became a professor in 1969 and published her thesis L'Exil de James Joyce ou l' art du remplacement (The Exile of James Joyce). After the 1968 French student riots, Cixous founded the Université de Paris VIII in Vincennes. The main agenda of this experimental university was to act as an alternative to institutional education, which was being critiqued at the time.

Between 1969 and 1972, Cixous published a number of works of fiction: Dedans, Le Troisième Corps, Les Commencements and Neutre. Greatly influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, Cixous saw writing as an opportunity to free one's inner self and question traditional authority.

Cixous published a collection of essays called Prénoms de personne (Nobody's Name) in 1974, in which she examined the works of E.T.A. Hoffman, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich von Kleist, James Joyce and Edgar Allen Poe. She discovered that all of these authors gave their female characters limited means of expression. Cixous determined that in order for there to be an effective social change regarding the perception of gender, a linguistic change was necessary.

Her own writing style has been deemed experimental, blending the academic with the poetic. She is known for her development of "écriture feminine," which deals with social theory, especially regarding the influence of writing on social perceptions. Cixous insists that in order for women to change their role in society, they must be prolific writers in their own right.

After 1977, Cixous devoted her work to the feminist cause, publishing all her writing with the Des Femmes publishing house. She firmly believed that new, non-gender words could replace traditional words bearing feminine and masculine qualities, thereby breaking down gender barriers. Her ensuing work contemplated language and poetry. These works include: Préparatifs de noces au-dela de l'abîme (Wedding Preparations Beyond the Abyss), Anankè, Illa, With ou l'art de l'innocence (With or the Art of Innocence), and Limonade tout était si infini (Lemonade Everything Was So Infinite).

During the 1980s, Cixous collaborated with Ariane Mnouchkine, an experimental theater director. She focused on historical and political writing and wrote Le Livre de Promethea (The Book of Promethea), a feminine adaptation of the Promethean myth, in 1983.

Stefan Polatinsky explores the merging of poetry and philosophy in Cixous's work in his article "The Provocation of Helene Cixous: Philosophy in Poetic Overflow." According to Polatinky, says Cixous not only exhibits a certain style of writing, but also a certain style of thinking: "The poet is not only someone who writes (makes) poems, but also one who considers what is outside the logos." This type of thinking must be a poetic overflow, unrestricted and uninhibited.

Cixous has been quoted as saying, "I call 'poet' any writing being who sets out on this path, in quest of what I call the second innocence, the one that comes after knowing, the one that no longer knows, the one that knows how not to know." To Cixous, writing reveals a hidden world, a "starry wandering about which we sense, without ever seeing it, the presence of an order other than our own."

Cixous wrote Le Rire de la Méduse (The Laugh of the Medusa) in 1975, with the purpose of breaking down gender barriers via language and rhetoric. Anu Aneja writes of Cixous's take on the mythical figure, "Rewriting the horrifying Medusa of a masculist mythology, Cixous creates a laughing Medusa who, in the role of hysteric, resists the male view of her sexuality in becoming incomprehensible, unclassifiable, as one finds her only 'in the divide.'" Cixous is encouraging women to explore their inhibited sexuality, to break free of a language that views the female body from the outside. Women have the literary opportunity to let the female body speak for itself or, as Cixous puts it, "to write the body."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Helene Cixous: Critical Impressions
Lee A. Jacobus; Regina Barreca.
Gordon and Breach, 1999
The Helene Cixous Reader
Susan Sellers; Helene Cixous.
Routledge, 1994
Volleys of Humanity: Essays 1972- 2009
Hélène Cixous; Eric Prenowitz.
Edinburgh University Press, 2011
Shifting Scenes: Interviews on Women, Writing, and Politics in Post-68 France
Carolyn G. Heilbrun; Nancy K. Miller; Alice Jardine; Anne M. Menke.
Columbia University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 is an interview with Helene Cixous
Modern European Criticism and Theory: A Critical Guide
Julian Wolfreys.
Edinburgh University Press, 2006
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 46 "Helene Cixous"
Freudians and Feminists
Edith Kurzweil.
Westview Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "Helene Cixous's Appeal" begins on p. 134
Twentieth-Century Rhetorics and Rhetoricians: Critical Studies and Sources
Michael G. Moran; Michelle Ballif.
Greenwood Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Helene Cixous (1937-)" begins on p. 95
Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction
Rosemarie Putnam Tong.
Westview Press, 1998 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Helene Cixous" begins on p. 199
The Contemporary Novel in France
William Thompson.
University Press of Florida, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Helene Cixous"
Sexuality and the Reading Encounter: Identity and Desire in Proust, Duras, Tournier, and Cixous
Emma Wilson.
Clarendon Press, 1996
Helene Cixous, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing
Hélène Cixous; Mireille Calle-Gruber.
Routledge, 1997
Stigmata: Escaping Texts
Hélène Cixous.
Routledge, 1998
Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing
Sarah Cornell; Susan Sellers; Hélène Cixous.
Columbia University Press, 1993
Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader
David Lodge; Nigel Wood.
Pearson, 2000 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 16 "Sorties" by Helene Cixous
Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured
Susan C. Jarratt.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: "The Case of Cixous" begins on p. 71
The Provocation of Helene Cixous: Philosophy in Poetic Overflow
Buys, Anthea; Polatinsky, Stefan.
Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 42, No. 4, December 2009
Speaking Up for Catherine Morland: Cixous and the Feminist Heroine
Cordon, Joanne.
Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, September 2011
Helene Cixous's Improper Name
Hanrahan, Mairead.
The Romanic Review, Vol. 90, No. 4, November 1999
Cixous's 'Portrait De Dora': The Play of Whose Voice?
Hanrahan, Mairead.
The Modern Language Review, Vol. 93, No. 1, January 1998
Of Three-Legged Writing: Cixous's le Jour Ou Je N'etais Pas La
Hanrahan, Mairead.
French Forum, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring 2003
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