Guardian of Language: An Interview with Hélène Cixous (March 1996)

Kathleen O'Grady

(Translated by Eric Prenowitz)

By arrangement with Kathleen O'Grady, Voice of the Shuttle is republishing this interview from Women's education des femmes 12 (No. 4; Winter 1996-7): 6-10. (Wedf permission policy) Accompanying the interview are excerpts from the original French.

Kathleen O'Grady (e-mail) is a doctoral candidate at Trinity College, the University of Cambridge, where she is working on the linguistic philosophy of Julia Kristeva (specifically metaphor, metonymy and the subject of religious language). Her recent publications include "Julia Kristeva: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources in French and English" (Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1997) and "The Pun or the Eucharist?: Julia Kristeva and Umberto Eco on the Consummate Model for the Metaphoric Process," Literature and Theology (January 1997). Her interviews with Rosi Braidotti and Linda Hutcheon are online. (This page mounted 11/18/97; last revised 7/27/98)

Introducing the work of Hélène Cixous is not an easy task; it involves describing several lifetimes of achievement.[1]

I could describe the early Cixous who earned her doctorate for a thesis on the literature of James Joyce and was soon after awarded the prestigious appointment at the University of Paris VIII as Chair for the department of English literature. This Cixous has written a number of articles and books in both literary criticism and philosophy. Or I could describe the Cixous who discovered the world of creative writing, where she initiated a kind of fictional autobiographical style that has inspired writers, philosophers, and literary critics alike. Then there is Cixous the playwright. Her numerous plays, screenplays and even an opera libretto have been both popularly and critically acclaimed. But perhaps the personage that is best known internationally is Cixous the feminist. In 1974 she created the Centre d'Etudes Féminines at the University of Paris VIII which offered the first doctoral program in women's studies in Europe. This Cixous celebrates a theory of écriture féminine -- an ethical writing style (which women in particular can access) that is able, through a phonetic inscription of the feminine body, its pulsions and flows, to open up and embrace the difference of the other.

Combined, Cixous the literary critic, philosopher, playwright, and feminist has produced well over 40 books and more than 100 articles. This is not the accomplishment of a lifetime, but the culmination of several lifetimes, each united and infused by the solitary voice of a poet. As Cixous states herself, "I give myself a poet's right, otherwise I would not dare to speak."[2]

In the 1970s, through both fiction and theory, you constructed a Derridean inspired concept of écriture féminine. Texts like The Newly Born Woman with Catherine Clément (1975) and "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1976) develop a theory of writing based on the libidinal economy of the feminine and call for a re-examination of bisexuality. The subsequent "Extreme Fidelity" (1988) continued to augment and clarify this concept by locating sexual difference within a cultural domain. How does this theory inspire your own philosophico-poetic texts? Does it provide an ethical and political framework in addition to its aesthetic dimensions?

For me, theory does not come before, to inspire, it does not precede, does not dictate, but rather it is a consequence of my text, which is at its origin philosophico-poetical, and it is a consequence in the form of compromise or urgent necessity. Each time I have written or that I write a so-called "theoretical" text -- in quotations because in reality my theoretical texts are also carried off by a poetic rhythm -- it has been to respond to a moment of tension in cultural current events, where the ambient state of discourse -- academic discourse, for example, or journalistic or political discourse -- has pushed me to go back over things, to stop my journey and take the time to emphasize, to display in a didactic manner the thinking movement which for me was indissociable from my poetic movement, but which seemed to me to be entirely misunderstood, forgotten or repressed indeed by the topical scene. So all that is called "theoretical" in my work is in reality simply a kind of halt in the movement that I execute in order to underline in a broad way what I have written or what has been possible to read for a long time in my fictional texts. Never has a theory inspired my poetic texts. It is my poetic text that sits down from time to time on a bench or else at a café table -- that's what I am in the process of doing at this moment by the way -- to make itself heard in univocal, more immediately audible terms. In other words, it is always a last resort for me. So no, it does not provide an additional ethico-political structure; it is the concession a poet makes in accepting pedagogic responsibility.

Though you praise the works of Colette, Duras, Genet, Joyce and Shakespeare throughout much of your work, it is the voice of Clarice Lispector which permeates your fictional texts. To Live the Orange (1979), "Extreme Fidelity" (1988), Reading With Clarice Lispector (1990) and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (1993) constitute an honourary identification and exchange with the texts of Lispector. In what way do her words stimulate the mythical quality that infuses your writing? Does Lispector in any way motivate the incessant return to divinity perceptible in your fiction?

First, it is true that Clarice Lispector has an absolutely exceptional place in my space of references, and that she is unique for me. I compare her with no one. With no one among our contemporaries. Another person also has a unique and exceptional place, it is Jacques Derrida, and in a certain way, I could say -- it is a simplification -- that each of them occupies a sort of ideal place of writing for me, taking sexual difference into account, he occupying the space of a certain masculinity capable of femininity, and she occupying the space of a femininity capable of masculinity.

As for the relation I have with her: I began to read her in 1977, and I only really began to know her text, to be able to respond to it, two years later; let us say that I worked for two years to really understand her thought. I began publishing in 1967; in 1977, I had already written twelve or thirteen books of fiction, four or five volumes of theoretical essays, which continue to be points of reference like The Newly Born Woman, Prénoms de personne, several plays. That is the person who encountered Clarice Lispector, which is to say someone who had a rather long literary, poetic and political experience, and I had the good fortune to recognize in Clarice Lispector a companion and a contemporary woman. The presence in my texts of what you call the "mythical quality" or else of inscriptions of a system of allusions to God, in quotes, is originary for me. My first collection of short stories, from 1967, was called Prénoms de Dieu [Forenames of God]. I have always played with God. For me, the signifier Dieu, as I have always said, is the synonym of what goes beyond us, of our own projection toward the future, toward infinity.

What I must say also is that clearly, like all writers who invoke Dieu the word and the word Dieu in their texts, I am religiously atheistic, but literarily deistic, that's it. Ultimately I think that no one can write without the aid of God, but what is it, God? without the aid of writing, God-as-Writing.

In addition to being an acclaimed novelist and theorist, you are also a successful playwright. "The Terrible But Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk King of Cambodia" (1985) and "Indiada or the India of Their Dreams" (1987) have been attended by large audiences in France. Your plays indicate a discernible shift in your writing, from introspective prosody to an examination of historical characters and events. In your essay, "The Place of Crime, The Place of Forgiveness" (1987) you indicate that this shift is an ethical one. What subjective force can theatrical performance provide that a prose text cannot? And in what way does this amplify your earlier concepts?

There is no decisive "shift" between theatre and fiction, in any case relative to an engagement, something that is on the order of a responsibility of writing. What happens with theatre is what theatre allows an author and which the fictional text does not allow, that is to say a direct relation with the audience, and thus clearly an intensity, a greater, more immediate density of the ethico-political message. That is clearly the difference in "responsibility" between the theatre and the fictional text: it's more immediate. It is a staging or a putting on the stage, it's the effect of the mise en scène.

I ought to say, once and for all, a certain number of banalities or truisms: there was an issue of l'Observateur, quite recently, with a long interview of Jacques Derrida entitled "Yes, my texts are political," which is to say that the journalistic attitude or superficial reading oblige him to repeat something that is absolutely obvious, it's that his philosophical writing is a writing that is always political, that always has political effects -- and it is the same thing for me. It's as if a certain audience only used the term "political" for that which has as its object or as its centre a reference to historico-political events properly speaking, events that could find a place precisely in the newspapers and the history books. Yet the political -- this is a triviality, I am ashamed to have to say it -- does not stem simply from the political scene, from the political events reported by the media; it begins obviously by the discourse of the speaking subject on him- or herself, which is to say that all that makes the political scene -- relations of power, of oppression, enslaving, exploitation -- all of this begins within me: first of all in the family and in the interior of myself. Tyrants, despots, dictators, capitalism, all that forms the visible political space for us is only the visible and theatrical, photographable projection of the Self-with-against-the-other. I suggest we add the preposition "withagainst" to the English language. The equivalent in French being: "contre." I cannot even imagine how one could think otherwise. So when I write texts of fiction, and when in these texts of fiction I deal with problematics either that touch on the definition of the subject, or a human subject, or when I put family scenes, questions of exile, into metaphor and into poetic narrative -- my first narrative which was called Dedans reads in fact as an oblique ethico-political treatise on the conscious and unconscious situation in Algeria between the '40s and the '60s -- one is not obliged to read it in that way, but that is what it is. There is always a political reflexion and engagement running through it. It is thus simply a different form of the same fundamental scene that is the scene in which Shakespeare, or Kafka, portray their characters. It has exactly the same dimension. One cannot divide, for example, human destiny between the introspective, which would be non-political, and then a sort of exterior which would be political. It makes no sense, no more than if one were to consider the Greek tragedians. A human subject has a destiny in so far as it is a human being citizen. It cannot be separated. In this way I could say that there is not a single one of my fictional texts that does not resonate with echoes of world history. I was born political, in a sense, and it was even for political reasons that I began to write poetry as a response to the political tragedy.

And in the same way, as I have very often said, there is not only the question of the representation or the inscription of an ethico-political problematic, there is also the question of action. I know that here too it is thought that action -- that is, what is called action -- is an action that ought to be visible in the field, in the field of war or in the field of the political scene, properly speaking, of the Parliament, etc. And I am uncomfortable saying that literary actions are actions that have a force of transformation, a force of political affirmation, and a revolutionary force that no person who has been in a situation of distress has ever denied, quite to the contrary. The Algerian exiles, the Algerian intellectuals who are exiled, that is who are threatened with death, those who survive the massacres, are the proof: the first ones to be killed and massacred are those who make gestures of writing. Another proof: among them, I have many friends for whom it is essential to come into a text to text relation or communication with people like us. Finally, and what is more, in France there is a tradition of a relationship between the literary text or the writer and public opinion. Poets, novelists, philosophers, etc. have always thought of their gestures of writing as a political gesture, and they have carried it out also in this manner. When Zola goes from the work of art to the combat for Dreyfus, he takes only one step. And so I am not going to enumerate the gestures I make in this domain, but they exist. And I will add that, in a manner that is strictly specific and reserved to writing, I think -- I have always said it, I am reaffirming it -- that the writers who are conscious are guardians, not only of the res publica, the common wealth, which is only one aspect of their work, but above all -- it is their role, it is their mission -- they are the guardians of language, that is to say of the richness of language, of its freedom, of its strangeness, strangerness. Language is a country in which scenes comparable to what is happening, for example, at this moment in France, in the domain of the opening or the closing of borders, are played out in the linguistic and poetic mode. There are ways of writing French that are ways of writing "good" or proper French in setting up its borders and defending at all costs French nationalism and nationality. There are, on the contrary, ways of degrammaticalizing or of agrammaticalizing French, of working in syntax for it to be an open, receptive, stretchable, tolerant, intelligent language, capable of hearing the voices of the other in its own body. And this is a great revolutionary tradition of French poetry -- in this sense I feel myself to be in the lineage of someone like Rimbaud -- a certain breach of the limit, a certain unfurling of language, above all, a certain work on the signifier and, of course a necessary political attitude. One could well imagine that power could be taken over by "good French" in Academia and the media, and in that situation there would no longer be freedom of thought, quite simply.

In 1974 you founded the Centre d'Etudes Féminines at the University of Paris VIII. Recently the government threatened this, the only academic women's studies doctoral program and resource centre in Paris, with closure. What events led to the creation of the program in the 70s and what about the 90s brought about its threatened demise?

I created the Centre d'Études Féminines in 1974 for two reasons. One of them, which was fundamental, was that I was professor of English Literature, and I felt I was hemmed in, since I had become an academic, in a definition of which the referent is national. For me, a literature cannot be a literature enclosed within borders. That is the first thing. Literature is a transnational country. The authors we read have always been the citizens of the other world, border-crossers and out-laws. And they have always strangered their own language. And the second thing is that literature -- like all discourses -- is in its great majority masculine. And so I was someone who taught, with passion by the way, a restricted literature, that is to say English and masculine literature. I'm very happy to do it, on the condition that there is not an exclusion. So I tried to get out of the enclosure of the unisex, unilanguage, etc., and I made use of a reorganization of the university structures, of the doctoral structures in France, and of the need, for French research, to create new doctorates, to propose a doctorate that had never existed in France, and which was a Women's Studies. And in '74 it was accepted. It was a doctorate that was interdisciplinary and, of course, intercultural, interlinguistic, etc., that knocked down the absurd partitions between literature and philosophy, and between languages, and on the other hand, from the moment it sheltered other discourses than strictly literary ones, and when one could also hear a historical voice, a sociological voice, a psychoanalytic voice, etc., it allowed me to introduce the theme that was dear to me, the theme of sexual difference. Very quickly I began to work with a general thematic: The poetics of sexual difference, which had never happened before in France. But it is for exactly the same reason that this programme was threatened with suppression, and has just recently been threatened again, because the new authority in research in France, who dates from the Balladur Government, asked why we had any need for Women's Studies in France when there are no Men's Studies, there you have it, it's very simple! This speaks to the ideological backwardness of France. France is fifteenth in Europe with respect to all the problematics concerning women, and fifteenth also with respect to the development of the equality and the recognition of women in society, equally placed with Greece.

And finally, Iris Murdoch once wrote that it is "always significant to ask of any philosopher, what he is afraid of". So I ask you, what is your greatest fear? And in asking this, I wonder if I am not submitting to you the other, unspoken side of your own recurring question: "Que sont-je quand je songe?"

I would say that I am so afraid of being afraid that I am not afraid. Now clearly, if I wanted to stay in the domain of austerity and humility, I would say that, like all human beings, I fear seeing the people I love die. But I do not think this is a great fear, I think that it is being human, it is living, that's all, it is not a fear. Living -- we do not live without fearing the death of the other: I am alive, thus I am contracted with terror at the idea that one of those close to me could be killed, could suffer. But I cannot say that it is what one calls fear. All the rest, for me, is anger; I am angry at the spirit of betrayal that dominates individuals and society.

Excerpts From the Original French / Extraits de l'entretien du 7.3.96


1. For an overview of Cixous's work see the excellent The Hélène Cixous Reader. Susan Sellers, ed. (London: Routledge, 1994) and Hélène Cixous: Authorship, Autobiography and Love by Susan Sellers (Oxford: Polity Press, 1996). (Back )

2. "Extreme Fidelity," in Susan Sellers (ed.), Writing Differences: Readings from the Seminar of Hélène Cixous (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988). (Back )

Reprinted by arrangement with Kathleen O'Grady from Women's education des femmes (12, 4) Winter 1996-7: pp. 6-10.

Women's education des femmes reprint policy: In the interest of the widest distribution and use of information, Wedf encourages readers to reproduce material from the magazine for the purposes of education and learning. For other purposes of reproduction, such as reprinting material in another publication, permission must be requested from the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women ( and the author, Kathleen O'Grady (

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