Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Helene Cixous's Improper Name

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Helene Cixous's Improper Name

Article excerpt

In Helene Cixous's texts, myriad are the inscriptions in one form or another of the author's own name. Numerous also are the passages elaborating in some detail on its significance. One example in Jours de l'an adumbrates a number of questions relevant to the discussion in this article:

   Les coincidences nous atteignent, comme certains prenoms propres qui nous
   ont poursuivies depuis des decennies ou certaines syllabes qui ne
   manqueront pas de faire resonner une corde secrete des que nous abordons un
   port encore inconnu, un roman promis a devenir chair de notre chair, ou la
   femme ou l'auteur que nous ne cesserons plus jamais d'adorer.

      Et comment mesurer le mystere d'avoir un nom aussi etrange que celui de
   l'auteur qui s'appelle Hellia. Hellia avec un h. Un nom avec l'unique
   lettre muette dans notre langue. Mais dans la langue de sa mere elle est
   tout le contraire: lettre de l'aspiration. Eteinte en ce pays, helante en
   l'autre. Et c'est par son echelle qu'elle passe, d'un souffle, d'une langue
   a l'autre, du silence a l'eclat de rire. Ce que ce nom lui a fait faire, on
   ne pourra jamais le dire. Ce qu'il jure dans une langue, il l'abjure dans
   l'autre. Trop d'enfer, trop de lumiere, trop de chance suspendue au-dessus
   de sa tete. Voila pourquoi l'auteur renonce a mesurer. Son nom au-dessus de
   sa tete, tantot promesse tantot menace, et la promesse est elle-meme la
   menace. A cause de cette Hache qui luit au Nord d'elle. (1)

For the moment, let me just signal the "prenoms propres qui nous ont poursuivies depuis des decennies" and note that the frequent recurrence of the letters or in the words corde, abordons, port, encore, adorer, and their reversal in manqueront, roman, promis, cesserons (not to speak of their anagrammatization in numerous other words), suggests that this syllable--which moreover became the title of a recent text (2)--is one of those which strike a particular chord. The main point I wish to emphasize is the strangeness of the author's name, a name which precisely is not "Helene." A name "aussi etrange que celui de l'auteur qui s'appelle Hellia": the amphibology in the syntax immediately undermines the notion that a proper name has an unequivocal referent. For is "the" author that of this text, or an other author who happens to share a strangely similar name? The first surprise is that the author's name is not Helene, but is strangely like Helene, a Greek Helene perhaps, or indeed an infernal Helene (the disconcerting use of the word enfer a few lines down suggests that resonances of the English word "hell" are to be heard, just as the choice of the word echelle may be motivated by the close paronymic relation in English between "letter" and "ladder" (3)). And not only is the author's name a strange, foreign name in its difference from "Helene"; the fact that the H is not pronounced in French means that it sounds like elle y a, a displacement of the construction il y a which precisely calls the (impersonal) subject into question. Especially, the name is presented as strange to itself, originally, structurally foreign, in that its initial letter marks a difference between languages, being pronounced differently in the author's mother's language ("la langue de sa mere") from in her own (the reader may or may not know that Cixous's mother is Austro-German). However, in French la langue maternelle has the same meaning as the English "mother tongue," suggesting that even in her own language, the author's name is foreign to her. The name's "mystere," then, inheres in the difference it gives rise to: between muteness and aspiration (the colon separating "lettre de l'aspiration" from the rest of the sentence draws attention to both senses of the word "aspiration"), but also between masculine and feminine, between silence and laughter, between swearing and forswearing, between darkness and light, between promise and threat. Between self and other: "dans la langue de sa mere elle est tout le contraire" can be read as "she is the very opposite" (as well as it is the very opposite). …

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