Hélène Cixous (born June 5, 1937) is a professor, French feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician.


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 (The Exile of James Joyce) and the following year she published her first novel, Dedans (Inside), a semi-autobiographical work that won the Prix Médicis. She is a professor at the University of Paris VIII, 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 (French). 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, on Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, Michel de Montaigne, Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, and the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

Along with Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, Cixous is considered one of the mothers of poststructuralist feminist theory. Since the 1990s, these three together with Bracha Ettinger have considerably influenced French feminism and Feminist psychoanalysis.

In the 1970s, Cixous began writing about the relationship between sexuality and language. Like many 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"), translated and released in English in 1976. She has published over 70 works; her fiction, dramatic writing and poetry, however, are not often read in English. Her reading of Derrida finds additional layers of meaning at a phonemic rather than strictly lexical level.[1]

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.

Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalyst 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; afterward, however, 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 Jacques Lacan, another psychoanalyst.

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 or reject our desires in order to become happy again because the "self" can never exist outside of language.

Jacques Derrida

Contemporaries, lifelong friends, and intellectuals, Jacques Derrida and Cixous both grew up as French Jews in Algeria and share a "belonging constituted of exclusion and nonbelonging"—not Algerian, rejected by France, their Jewishness concealed or acculturated. In Derrida’s family "one never said 'circumcision'but 'baptism,'not 'Bar Mitzvah'but 'communion.’" Judaism cloaked in Catholicism is one example of the undecidability of identity that influenced the thinker whom Cixous calls a "Jewish Saint." [1] Her book Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint addresses these matters.

Through deconstruction, Derrida employed the term logocentrism (which was not his coinage). 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 binary opposition is essential to Cixous' position on language.

Cixous and Luce Irigaray combined Derrida's logocentric idea and Lacan's symbol for desire, creating is termed 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, a collection in Cixous' name was created at the Bibliothèque nationale de France after Cixous donated the entirety of her manuscripts to date. They then featured in the exhibit "Brouillons d'écrivains" held there in 2001.

In 2003, the Bibliothèque held the conference "Genèses Généalogies Genres: Autour de l'oeuvre d'Hélène Cixous". Among the speakers were Mireille Calle-Gruber, Marie Odile Germain, Jacques Derrida, Annie Leclerc, Ariane Mnouchkine, Ginette Michaud, and Hélène Cixous herself.

Major works

The Laugh of the Medusa (1975)

This text, originally written in French as Le Rire de la Meduse in 1975, was 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" is an extremely literary essay and 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 earlier thought. The essay also calls for an acknowledgment of universal bisexuality or polymorphous perversity, a precursor of queer theory's later emphases, and 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. In homage to French theorists of the feminine, Laughing with Medusa was published by Oxford University Press in 2006.

Sorties (1975)

The text is based on oppositions, of the type Superior/Inferior:



Form, convex,step, advance,seed, progress.
Matter, concave, ground - which supports the step, receptacle.



  1. Not the same as puns, which play on the varied means of a word or phrase or the homonyms thereof.

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