The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 30, 2002

Domination and subversion
Shelley Walia

Helene Cixous: Authorship, Autobiography and Love
by Susan Sellers. Polity Press, Cambridge.
Pages.191. £13.95.

Helene Cixous: Authorship, Autobiography and LoveHELENE Cixous’ play The Conquest of the School of Madhubai is based on Phoolan Devi’s life for she was pained and fascinated by her intense desire for vengeance. She has collaborated with Mnouchkine, Ariane (1939– ), the French theater director who founded the Théâtre du Soleil, on Sihanouk (1985, a production about Cambodia) and L’indiade (1987), a play about India’s struggle for Independence. Many know France’s foremost poet and thinker Helene Cixous as only a feminist critic and essayist, often ignoring the large oeuvre of her fictional and dramatic writings. To set this one-sidedness right, Susan Sellers’ unusually lucid and scholarly book revives ‘another Cixous, Cixous the author, to be reborn in her reading’.

Feminist theory and practice will always be indebted to this book where Cixous’ literary works are explained suitably in the context of her theory of ‘ecriture feminine’, thereby illustrating the various stages in her writing career. Her evocative prose, her uncompromising political stand and her regard for the politics of difference all point to her rebellious disposition and an aspiration to bring the noblest human principles to the vanguard of a morally and culturally declining world in which literature could be engaged as a considerable means of transformation.


Focusing on her main creative writings, Sellers’ analysis emphasises the exploration of our subjective relation to the world and then finally involvement in the endeavour to reform this relation which is mainly the concern of Cixous’ fiction. In her seminal article From the Scene of History: Pathway of Writing, Cixous uses events from her life that become the impetus behind her creative writing: the untimely death of her farther when she was merely 11, the multicultural ethos of France that she grew in and the imperialist French adventure in Algeria are some of the significant factors responsible for her involvement with the question of cultural identity and the self. Violence and racism of the Algeria of the 1930s where she was born as a French Jew left her in a state of alienation: she was always the other for both the French and the Arabs, thus feeling homeless in a world that was heartlessly colonised. She grew up with a constitutional antipathy for the coloniser and all that stands for authoritarianism. Anger, disgust and tragedy filled her adolescent years thereby bestowing on her the heart-rending experience of colonial history that became an impetus behind her involvement with literary and critical writings. It was in this pursuit that she saw how enormous ‘possibilities of language could open before her’ and how the dark side of human ‘ruthlessness’ could be explored and overcome.

Thus it is her exile, her alien status, the war, ‘the phantom memory of peace, mourning and pain’ which characterise her writings. More than any factor, it is the death of her father which brought the correlation between loss and self-definition which becomes the ‘gesture of writing linked to the experience of disappearance, to the feeling of having lost the key to the world’. Consequently, she moves from obsession with self-identity in the earlier fiction to the increasing affirmation in her later works. Through the literary text she discovers the non-coercive and liberating strategies of deconstructing oppressive structures of language and meaning. She continuously identifies in language ‘apartheid’ and ‘totalitarianism’ drawing a link between the missing and thus symbolic father and language. This world of the language is not solely associated with the missing father. The mother too also occupies the domain of language: ‘m’other, my other’ – familiar and already other. Thus language becomes ‘both a compensation for and a means of living – through inscribing – loss; everything is lost except words. This is a child’s experience: words are our doors to all the other worlds.’

Writing for Cixous becomes an act of deliverance and emancipation, of safeguarding life. For her ‘writing follows life like its shadow, extends it, hears it, engraves it’. She began writing to prevail over her personal loss. Her uneasiness expressed in her writing is a move towards rest and towards the overcoming of the ‘demoniac feeling of being nothing, controlling nothing’. The intention was not to mourn the past and the personal hell, but to become the ‘prophet of the present’. To achieve this feeling ‘continuous and constant work is a must to realise that celebration of the present also involves the remembrance of hell which for some is nothing but the present’. The writer, therefore has to undergo the act of remembering all those who abide in hell, but whose experience is unknown to the writer. This unshared experience of a living hell has to be recreated by the writer; this is the experience of the other so vital to fictional writing. Undoubtedly, this is ‘difficult comprehending’ particularly if you are an outsider or belong to a different social group. To overcome this problem of writing of the other, Cixous has resorted to writing drama where apparently the ‘other’ is made to speak for her/himself especially in a phallic and hierarchical world peopled by men who are ridiculous because they are so deeply ‘misogynist’. She believes that winning political equality alone will not alter cultural beliefs about the roles of the sexes and that feminists must take action through their very language as well as through their literary and critical work if they want to change those attitudes.