Feminist thinker Hélène Cixous elided the term “juifemme” (Jewoman) to articulate her complex experiences as “other” in society. Cixous came of age in Algeria with the dual identity of a French colonialist and an oppressed Jewish minority. After earning her English teaching credentials in Paris, in 1962 she began a lifelong friendship and philosophical dialogue with fellow Algerian Jew Jacques Derrida. In 1968, as founding chair of the English Department for the experimental University of Paris VIII, Cixous welcomed exiled Latin-American writers and groundbreaking philosophers. She has written approximately 87 books, a “life writing” comprising poetic fiction and autobiography, literary and feminist theory, art criticism, and theatrical works. In 1974 she created the first doctoral program in women’s studies in Europe at the University of Paris VIII.
The Jewish-Algerian-French writer Hélène Cixous published her first book in 1967 and her eighty-seventh (give or take one or two) in February 2021. That is a rhythm of almost two books a year, a life of writing—a “life writing,” comprising poetic fiction and autobiography, literary and feminist theory, art criticism, and theatrical works. It does not include her weekly seminars at the Collège International de Philosophie and the University of Paris VIII, which she has given for decades and which have started to be published.
Cixous is a phenomenon, an intellectual and literary star with an international following. But she is not a triumphalist. Instead, she speaks about the myriad contradictions and consequences of loss and exile, of “being Jewish” and “being a woman.” She has subjected these aspects of her existence to often radical types of questioning and at the same time defines them as morally, politically, and poetically decisive for her life and thought. Coming of age intellectually in the ferment of the 1960s, Cixous created innovative spaces for her explorations of cultural and sexual difference. She gained notoriety in the 1970s as a theorist and practitioner of “écriture féminine,” a feminine writing founded in the female body; since then, she has continuously explored the poetic as well as political possibilities of linguistic invention and wordplay.
Family and Education
Hélène Cixous was born on June 5, 1937, in Oran, Algeria, a hybrid city “full of neighborhoods, of peoples, of languages,” as she writes in her autobiographical notes in rootprints. She was the first child of Eve Cixous, née Klein (1910-2013), a refugee from Osnabrück in Nazi Germany, and her husband Georges Cixous (1909–1948), whose ancestors had come to Algeria through the expulsion and trade routes from Spain and Morocco. Georges Cixous was a physician who had written his dissertation on tuberculosis, to which he succumbed in 1948 at the age of 39. The previous year the family had moved to Algiers, where Eve took up midwifery, a profession with which she would support herself and her children (Hélène’s younger brother, Pierre, was born in 1939) after her husband’s death. Known as “the ‘Arabs’ midwife’ in Algiers,” she practiced in the poor neighborhood where she lived until her expulsion with the last French doctors and midwives in 1971.
For Hélène Cixous, these circumstances of her genealogy, birth, and life story, or, more precisely, the psychological and political conflicts inherent in these circumstances, were the seeds of her work: “My own writing was born in Algeria out of a lost country of the dead father and the foreign mother.” Playing with the “aberrant, extravagant” question of nationality became part of Cixous’s lifelong diasporic exercise: “I never thought I was at home [in Algeria], nor that Algeria was my country, nor that I was French.” Instead, her adolescent experience of Algerian Jewishness made her realize that the logic of nationality was usually accompanied by such “unbearable behaviors” as colonialism or antisemitism. It made her think of herself and her family in the provocative terms of a multiple alterity constituted by the logic of nationality, but that included what she later called a “joyous multilingualism.” In her family, French coexisted with German (which her mother spoke with her own mother, who joined the family from Germany in 1938) and with English, a language her mother had learned early and that Hélène spoke from the time she was a teenager; her father, for his part, grew up with Judeo-Spanish. Multilingualism was not only a form of play that would show up later in Cixous’ love of Joyce, who “wrote in 18 languages,” and in her own writing, where puns within and across languages are ever-present; it was also a road to political and moral awareness: “How could I be from a France that colonized an Algerian country when I knew that we ourselves, German Czechoslovak Hungarian Jews, were other Arabs” (rootprints).
Themes of Exile and Exclusion
During the years of her secondary education in Algiers and later in Paris, Cixous became keenly aware of the mechanisms of exclusion and interdiction based on cultural and sexual difference. In her French lycée in Algiers in the early 1950s, she was the only Jewish student in her class, a fact that Mireille Calle-Gruber attributes to an unofficial quota system (illegal according to French law). But already as a small child in Oran, Hélène had experienced exclusion along with her family when the Vichy government, in October 1940, deprived Algerian Jews of French nationality—which they had been granted by the Crémieux Decree of 1870—and her father was fired from his job as a doctor (he was later rehired). Hèlène, aged three, felt as if she had been “expelled from paradise” when her family was no longer welcome at the French officers’ club, where her father’s service in the Army at the beginning of the war had admitted them, and she was forbidden to attend French public school for the next three years. This exclusion was one of the formative childhood experiences she shared with another Algerian Jew, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship after their first meeting in Paris in the 1960s. But in relation to the literary “paradise,” as she wrote in “Coming to Writing,” her exclusion was double: as a Jew and as a woman, a “Jewoman” (Juifemme).
In 1955, when she was just eighteen, Cixous married Guy Berger (b. 1932), a university student, and they left for Paris, where Cixous attended khâgne, a year of advanced preparatory class at the Lycée Lakanal, for the entrance examination to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. She was the only North African among her classmates. “That is where I felt the true torments of exile […] I was deported right inside the class,” she wrote in rootprints. As it turned out, she and Berger soon left Paris because he had obtained the CAPES (secondary school teaching diploma) and had been assigned a post in Bordeaux, where Cixous began to prepare for the agrégation (the highest-level teachers’ exam) in English. In 1958 her first child, Anne-Emmanuelle, was born. That same year, Cixous obtained the CAPES in English and the agrégation soon thereafter. In 1959 Berger was drafted by the French army for military service in the Algerian war of independence, and Cixous took up teaching at the Lycée of Arcachon. The following year she met Jean-Jacques Mayoux (1901–1987), a professor at the Sorbonne, with whom she began to work on a doctoral thesis on James Joyce and the aesthetics of exile, a theme that would remain a central concern throughout her work. A second child, Stéphane, was born and died in infancy in 1961; her son Pierre-François was born the same year.
In 1961, Cixous’ brother, Pierre, a medical student and a supporter of Algerian independence, was condemned to death by the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, a right-wing terrorist group defending French rule in Algeria) and joined his sister in Bordeaux. Following Algeria’s independence in 1962, Eve Cixous and Pierre (who had hastily returned to Algiers after the war was over), were arrested by the new Algerian government. Hélène obtained their release with the help of the independence leader and first Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Bella’s lawyer (rootprints).
While still working on her doctoral thesis in 1962, Cixous became an instructor at the University of Bordeaux. Around that time, she first met Jacques Derrida in Paris; although he had not yet published the works that would propel him to international fame as the theorist of poststructuralism or “deconstruction,” Derrida was already launched on an academic career in philosophy and had published a book on Edmund Husserl. He was an admirer of Joyce, and his discussions of the Irish author with Hélène were the beginning of an intense friendship that later led to literary collaborations and mutual commentaries on each other’s works. In Derrida, Cixous found not only an intellectual interlocutor but a fellow Jewish exile from Algeria; their shared childhood experiences of exclusion and “labeling” may have led to their distinct but not incompatible views on the power of language and the potentially subversive effects of its suppressed or marginal elements.
Theories of Language
Derrida sought to challenge the supremacy of what he called logocentric thinking (based on binary logic and a single voice of authority) by emphasizing all the ways in which the presumed authority of a text or a discourse could be undone by its own multiple meanings; Cixous sought to challenge patriarchal thinking, based on a single voice of “phallic” authority, by emphasizing the power of feminine laughter and mockery in the face of the Father’s Law. (This strategy was most famously displayed in her 1975 feminist essay-manifesto, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” which was almost immediately translated into English and other languages.) Although Cixous punned on her mother’s maiden name, Klein (which means “small” in German), to say that hers was the small voice in comparison to Derrida’s big one (rootprints), in fact both writers are critical of “big” voices—that is, voices that suppress diversity and difference, whether sexual or any other. Feminism and poststructuralism, which have sometimes been seen as incompatible, are both concerned, ultimately, with issues of authority and domination, and their potential alliance was once summed up in the portmanteau word that designated their common target: “phallogocentrism.” This alliance also suggests a link with the emergence of postcolonialism, which emphasizes the marginal and the subaltern in re-visioning the colonial past as well as contemporary geopolitical power relations.
In 1962, these concerns were still in the future, for Cixous as for Derrida, but they were already there on the horizon, nurtured by the multiple intellectual and political movements that flourished in France. In 1963, Cixous was introduced by her thesis adviser to the psychoanalyst and theoretician Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), who would go on to found the “renegade” Ecole Freudienne de Paris in 1964 after being expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association. Lacan wanted someone to introduce him to the work of Joyce, and Cixous worked with him for two years; Joyce, along with the Surrealists, whom Lacan had frequented in the 1930s, was undoubtedly a presence behind Lacan’s fondness for punning in his theoretical texts (Le nom du père, “the name of the father,” a major concept in his theory about the symbolic order, is twinned with Les non-dupes errent, “non-dupes are in error”). In turn, Cixous’s own love of punning and wordplay could only have been encouraged by her work with Lacan, even if she would later mock the blind spots of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Cixous published her thesis, The Exile of James Joyce, in 1968. By then she had divorced Guy Berger (in 1964) and published her first literary work, Le prénom de Dieu (God’s First Name), a series of short texts that she later said she had written in a kind of trance. She had also been appointed a full professor at the University of Nanterre (in 1967), despite her not yet having her doctorate. Nanterre was the cradle of the student revolution that led to the national explosion May 1968, in which Cixous participated. One result of the “events of May” was that Cixous was appointed by the Minister of Education to head a committee that founded a new, experimental university in Vincennes, which became the Université de Paris 8. Under Cixous’ leadership, Vincennes appointed to full professorships some of the most important and innovative writers, literary theorists, and philosophers of those years, including Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. That same year, Cixous, Genette, and Todorov founded the literary journal Poétique, whose mission was to represent the theoretical avant-garde. (The journal has continued ever since, though Cixous and some of the other early contributors moved elsewhere fairly quickly.) In 1969, Cixous published her novel Dedans (Inside), the first of several works in which she struggled with her father’s death and its meaning for her and her family; written in a somewhat more conventional style than her later works, Dedans was awarded the Prix Médicis, a major literary prize. That same year she was named to the Chair in English Literature at Paris 8, where she continued to teach for decades and where in 1974 she established the doctoral program in Women’s Studies (which remains the only one in France, although Masters degrees are offered in a few other universities).
Feminism and “Ecriture feminine”
The 1970s witnessed the emergence of important feminist movements in France, some competing with each other but all contributing to what became known (and debated) in the United States as “new French feminisms.” Cixous was a leading figure, for a few years, in the group led by Antoinette Fouque, “Psych et Po,” which espoused what some critics called an “essentialist” feminism, theorizing the importance of the female body in writing as well as in politics. Cixous’s notion of “écriture féminine,” with its attendant ideas about “writing the body” and writing “with mother’s milk,” emerged out of this context, although it was a more complex notion than what critics sometimes attributed to her. In her view, it was necessary to recognize the potential bisexuality in all writing; the bisexuality she had in mind was not that of the Platonic hermaphrodite, with its “fantasy of unity” or totality, but rather that of a “dual” or even multiple subject, who is not afraid to recognize in him or herself the presence of both sexes, with their multiple drives and desires. For historical and cultural reasons, she believed, it was women who had the greatest potential for realizing this kind of bisexuality and practicing the “fluid” writing that results from it. Men, with some exceptions among the poets, were too prone to fall victim to the ideology of phallogocentrism, with its emphasis on linearity, logic, and homogeneity.
Cixous’ emphasis, in the 1970s, on multiplicity in gender may be seen as foreshadowing current preoccupations and practices in diverse gender identities, but she did not pursue that line of thinking in her later work, as her preoccupations moved toward history and autobiography.
Writing in Diverse Genres
Whatever one may think of the theory of “écriture féminine” (which was much debated in the following decades), it allowed Cixous to produce some extraordinarily innovative prose works in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to manifesto-like essays like “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) or “Coming to Writing” (1977), she wrote a number of book-length texts she called “fictions,” an amalgam of poetic invention, autobiography, and theoretical reflection. Among these is Souffles (Breaths), which appeared in 1975 and inaugurated the series of 26 books that Cixous published over the next two decades with Antoinette Fouque’s publishing house, the Editions des Femmes. The title of Souffles is meant to suggest both the breathing and the voice that come when censorship over the body is lifted; it also suggests strong emotion or labor or passion, in all of which one “breathes hard.” Cixous’s text exploits all of these associations of the word and merges them in a single metaphoric complex that runs throughout the book, that of giving birth: to a child, to a text, to herself as a writer. The birth metaphor also allows Cixous to pun on the name of Jean Genet (Je-nais, I am born), one of the “maternal” male writers in whom she sees a kindred soul.
The presence of the maternal in Cixous’ writing was not only metaphorical; it was also concrete and incarnated, for her mother and grandmother arrived in Paris in 1971 after being expelled from Algeria. For the next forty-two years Hélène was never separated from her mother for long. If her father evoked images of absence, loss, and death, her mother became a constant source of inspiration and life. In her exchange of letters with the writer Cécile Wajsbrot, Une Autobiographie allemande, written shortly after Eve’s death, Cixous evokes her mother in the same breath as one of her favorite authors, Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne had lived not far from the house near Bordeaux where Cixous and her mother spent every summer and where she has done most of her writing; he wrote his pathbreaking Essays, a completely new kind of introspective writing, in the famous Tower he had built especially for that purpose and which Cixous had the habit of visiting every year. Montaigne and her mother, she writes, were her “two unshakable towers.” In fact, she has realized that “the Tower was my mother in literature, that it/she was a library, a bible, a house of memories, that I had her/it in my heart and my body and vice versa—that she was” (Autobiographie allemande, 44).
Eve Cixous stopped being on July 1, 2013, at the age of 103. Her daughter Hélène devoted a book to her final days and to the grieving that followed, Homère est morte, whose title is rich in meanings: O mother is dead (O mère est morte), a sentence that has the shape of a Greek lamentation. And in Cixous’ phrasing, the poet Homer (whose name in French is Homère) was feminine (the e in morte).
During the 1980s and 1990s Cixous increasingly turned from poetic fiction to the theater, and from a literary-feminist preoccupation with cultural and sexual difference and problems of selfhood to a political and historical—but still poetic—focus on moments of national crisis: in Cambodia (L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge, 1985; The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom of Sihanouk, King of Cambodia), in India (L’Indiade, ou l’Inde de leurs rêves, 1987; The Indiad, or the India of their Dreams), in China (Tambours sur la digue, 1999; Drums on the Dam), and closer to home, in France (La Ville parjure, ou le réveil des Érinyes, 1994; The Perjured City, or the Awakening of the Furies). Her renewed encounter with Ariane Mnouchkine, the director of Théâtre du Soleil, in 1982, was decisive in this respect. Exactly a decade earlier, Cixous and Mnouchkine, together with Michel Foucault, had put on blitz performances in front of prisons that were regularly dispersed by the police. Mnouchkine now asked Cixous to write for her theater and its multi-national cast. With growing success, they staged a number of incomparable theater productions in the following two decades. In 1989 they also collaborated on the film La Nuit Miraculeuse (The Miraculous Night), commissioned by the French National Assembly for the bicentennial of the Declaration of Human Rights and broadcast on French television that year. Mnouchkine figures, under various guises, in some of Cixous’ prose writings, notably in Le Livre de Prométhéa (1983), where she embodies a feminized version of the Greek hero, at once admired and beloved.
Over these decades, Cixous’s international recognition reached new heights. In 1989 she received the Southern Cross of Brazil for her contribution to the international understanding of Brazilian literature, namely, the works of the Jewish-Russian-Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (whom she had discovered in 1977 and to whom she devoted two books). She received honorary doctorates from a number of European, Canadian, and American universities, including Queen’s University, Ontario; Edmonton University, Alberta; York University, England; Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois; University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Saint Andrews University, Scotland. She delivered prestigious lectures in Europe and the United States, such as the Wellek Library Lecture at the University of California in Irvine in 1990 and the Amnesty International Lecture at Oxford University in 1993, and saw many conferences devoted to her work. In 1994, she was decorated with France’s highest honor, the Légion d’Honneur. An international colloquium on her works was held in June 1998 at Cerisy-la-Salle. That same year she received the title of Officier de l’Ordre National du Mérite.
In the late 1990s Cixous’s writings took yet another turn, and even more than one. Between 1998 and 2018, she published 35 books with Editions Galilée, a publishing house noted for its impressive roster of contemporary writers and philosophers and for its beautiful editions on heavy paper. Her first book with Galilée, Voiles (Veils or Sails), was a collaborative work with Jacques Derrida, accompanied by original drawings by the artist Ernest Pignon Ernest; three years later, she returned to Derrida with Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint, a book that is “not very catholic,” as she puts it in her insert to the original edition (prière d’insérer), but that is very much about the dilemmas and contradictions (his as well as her own) of “being Jewish” in France and Algeria. After Derrida’s death, she wrote about him and their long friendship in Insister: à Jacques Derrida, with more drawings by Pignon Ernest. Also with Galilée, she published several illustrated books on artists she admires: the Belgian Pierre Alechinsky (b. 1927), the Hungarian-born Simon Hantaï (1922-2008), and the Algerian Abdel Abdessemed (b. 1971), all of whose works are related, from near or far, to the modernist avant-garde.
The most important turn in Cixous’s prose works over the past twenty-odd years has been the turn to history—both her own and her family’s history between Germany, Algeria, and France, and the history of European Jews who were displaced by Nazism or murdered in the Holocaust. Cixous’s Algerian childhood, already evoked in many of her earlier works, is given its full due in Reveries of the Wild Woman (2000). The larger story began in 1930, when Eve Klein left the city of her birth, Osnabrück in northwestern Germany, having seen the handwriting on the wall even before Hitler came to power. Eve’s mother refused to leave until after the “Night of Broken Glass” in November 1938, when the city’s grand Jewish synagogue was set on fire by the Nazis. Some members of the family left for Brazil, Palestine, England, elsewhere; those who stayed left too, eventually, against their will, transported to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Decades later, some of those who had left returned to visit, invited by the repentant city elders. This story is told, in Cixous’s highly personal, discontinuous mode, in Osnabrück (1998), which recounts Eve Cixous’s return visit, in old age, to her native city; in Benjamin à Montaigne. Il ne faut pas le dire (2001, Benjamin to Montaigne. You Mustn’t Say It), which tells of two other aged relatives’ return visit and a repressed family story; in Gare d’Osnabrück à Jérusalem (2016; The Osnabrück Station in/to Jerusalem), which recounts Hélène’s own “return” to Osnabrück (where she had never been) after her mother’s death; and in 1938, nuits (2018, 1938, Nights), which tells the story of Eve’s friend Siegfried, who stayed and was deported but survived and went to Iowa, where he became Fred.
It is an endless story, which can never be told fully or too often—that is what Cixous seems to want to say, and will no doubt continue saying.
Selected Works by Hélène Cixous
The Exile of James Joyce. New York: David Lewis, 1972, London: John Calder, 1976 (L’exil de Joyce ou l’Art du remplacement. Paris, B. Grasset, 1968).
Homère est morte. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2014.
Inside. New York: Schocken 1986 (Dedans. Paris: Grasset, 1969).
“The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1:4 (Summer 1976): 875–893.
The Newly Born Woman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, with Catherine Clement (La jeune née. Paris: Union générale d'éditions 1975).
Le Livre de Prométhéa [The Book of Promethea]. Paris: Gallimard 1983.
Osnabrück. Paris: Des Femmes, 1998.
Portrait of Jacques Derrida As a Young Jewish Saint. New York: Columbia University Press 2004.
Readings. The Poetics of Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka, Lispector, Tsvetaeva. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice-Hall, 1992.
Reveries of the Wild Woman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006 (Les Rêveries de la femme sauvage. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2000).
Souffles [Breaths]. Paris: Des Femmes, 1975.
The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994 (L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge. Paris: Théâtre du soleil, 1985).
Veils. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2001, with Jacques Derrida (Voiles. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1998).
Books of interviews and anthologies:
“Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, ed. Deborah Jenson with an introductory essay by Susan Rubin Suleiman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1991.
The Hélène Cixous Reader. Edited by Susan Sellers. London and New York: Routledge 1994.
Rencontre terrestre [Earthly Encounter], with Frédéric-Yves Jeannet. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2005.
rootprints. Memory and Life Writing. London and New York: Routledgfe, 1997, with Mireille Calle-Gruber. (Hélène Cixous, photos de racines, par Mireille Calle-Gruber et Hélène Cixous. Paris: Des Femmes, 1994).
Une autobiography allemande [A German autobiography], with Cécile Wajsbrot. Paris: Bourgeois, 2016.
Braidotti, Rosi. “Becoming Woman, or Sexual Difference Revisited.” Metamorphoses. Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Oxford: Polity, 2002: 11–64.
Calle-Gruber, Mireille, ed. Hélène Cixous. Croisées d’une oeuvre. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2000.
Conley, Verena Andermatt. Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine. Expanded edition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Hanrahan, Mairéad. Cixous's semi-fictions: thinking at the borders of fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
Marks, Elaine and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.
Sellers, Susan. Hélène Cixous. Authorship, Autobiography and Love. Cambridge: Polity, 1996.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “French Feminism Revisited.” In Outside in the Teaching Machine. London and New York: Routledge, 1993,
Wilcox, Helen, et al., eds. The Body and the Text: Hélène Cixous, Reading and Teaching. Hemel Hempstead: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.