Stella Hughes talks to Helene Cixous, a feminist theorist who finds the label far too constricting to describe her numerous activities.
The name of Helene Cixous means different things to different people. In the English-speaking world she is known primarily as a feminist theorist, yet many Paris theatregoers know her above all as a playwright. In the realm of critical theory, Cixous is the creator of ecriture feminine, whose own "fictions" - her preferred word - have shattered the narrative form of the novel. For some of her PhD students there is the professor of English literature and James Joyce specialist, while for others she is a mentor with an original, philosophical-literary approach to women's studies.
Cixous leads a fortnightly Saturday seminar whose participants arrive from their home university by plane as well as by bus and who have often been attending for years. She is the theorist who finds the feminist label far too limiting, the mother who mentions her children's achievements (one teaching at Cornell, the other in Paris) on the CV handed out to the visiting journalist. She is also the French intellectual whose writing is layered rather than linear, both cerebral and intensely physical, and so erudite within its radical innovations that the reader has to dismantle all those socially constructed expectations of "the essay", "the novel", "the article" from the outset.
Cixous says she has "four or five forms of written expression" and underpinning all of them is the same intensely personal involvement with language - a relationship built up from childhood, first through exposure to different languages in colonial Algeria, as the child of a German-Jewish mother and Spanish-French-Jewish father. Then came reading. "Ever since I knew how to read, books have been living things for me; they are events in my life alongside other major events I they are my parents I my family," she explained.
That relationship with writing continued at university with the study of English literature. At the age of 22, Cixous passed the prestigious agregation "while rocking the first baby". Divorced when the children were still small, she says her teaching jobs, first at Bordeaux University then at the Sorbonne, helped make raising them alone while pursuing her career unproblematic. By the time the youngest child was eight, she was a professor, had published two novels and her thesis, The Exile of James Joyce - "the first", she says, "to see that one could no longer write novels in the same way in the 20th century".
Cixous's love of literature did not stop her wondering "where the women were" and the special relationship with writing began to take on a new dimension with the potential offered by the concept of ecriture feminine. Feminine writing, she argues, comes from deep inside, from a place named in the Bible "unclean" (immonde in French - literally out of this world) which "precedes prohibition". Climbing down to that place, to the "root of writing", is difficult and exacting, taking you through the "various doors, obstacles, walls and distances we have forged to make a life", she writes in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.
The feminine writer - usually, but not necessarily, a woman - attempts to relinquish the socially constructed self and to attain a feminine "economy of exchange", where the "other" is accepted, not opposed. The concept of ecriture feminine gives Cixous's relationship with words a militant dimension - a belief that such writing can, by overcoming "dualistic opposition", become a form of action, initiating changes able to challenge the foundations of the state. This concern with the deconstruction of the social self as a prerequisite for revolutionary action, bears the mark of French feminism's 1970s "psych et po", psychology and politics group. Its focus on language bears the mark of Derridean thinking. Cixous has long worked closely with Jacques Derrida, of whom she has written, "Derridean deconstruction will have been the greatest ethical critical warning gesture of our time: careful! Let us not be the dupe of logocentric authority".
But while Derrida dissects language using what remains a classical philosophical discourse, Cixous's own language is itself innovative. Hers is an entirely personal style, at times suggestive and subjective, at times sharply analytical, entering its subject to respond from the inside, playing on the sounds and multiple meanings of words and syllables in a way which echoes psychoanalysis. Which is of course where translation of Cixous poses enormous problems. It is, for example, quite impossible to convey in English the deep significance attached to the gender of nouns, which become lost in the English neuter.
More mundanely, Cixous herself has an enduring problem with the naming of the women's studies research centre at Paris VIII University she has directed since 1974. It is a problem she has still not solved. The Centre d'Etudes Feminines cannot be called women's studies, the "most practical term" but one which has no equivalent in French. "I could not call it feminist studies because 'feminist' has an extremely precise meaning: it is a reformist demand in terms of equality and not at all in terms of difference," she stated. So she is stuck with the word "feminine" - ridiculous too, she acknowledges, laughing - because the term she prefers, "poetic of sexual difference", would not, she claims, be understood by the people at the ministry who accredit France's one and only women's studies doctoral course.
That concern with sexual difference has led some feminist theorists to label Cixous an "essentialist" (one who believes that differences between masculine and feminine behaviour are biological, rather than socially constructed); a charge which she refutes as being a "stupid misrepresentation by people who haven't read me." For Cixous, sexual difference is a straightforward observation of fact. "There are areas of exchange, but then there are specific areas of non-exchange, without them there would not be love...that point of non-comprehension is necessary." It is not only sexual, she argues, "although you only have to make love to realise you cannot understand what the other is feeling", it is part of the human condition. This difference, so simple to see, cannot be confused with the idea of essentialism, says Cixous, who has always tried to avoid the double bind of radical feminism on the one hand and a system of identification in which we are all men, on the other.
France may be inhospitable to women's studies in general and to the notion of sexual difference in particular, but Cixous has managed to create a haven for her research and teaching within the Centre d'Etudes Feminines and at the CIPH, the College Internationale de Philosophie, founded in 1984 with Derrida at the helm.
Paris VIII is the one niche in the French university system where this could have happened. Cixous's academic life has long been tied to that of the university which she helped to set up and which was born of the May 1968 student revolt.
Her university seminar is held at CIPH, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, and it "has become a ritual", she says. About a third of the participants have been attending for up to ten years, in some cases coming back from posts abroad. The Saturday seminar on the poetic of sexual difference develops, through the study of great texts, a "new form of thinking". This, Cixous describes as "learning to read into the core of language, into signs, symptoms, traces", an approach which can serve, among other things, to "read" monuments as well as writing.
She cites as an example of this transferable skill, the case of a PhD student who went off for three years to Cambodian refugee camps, learned Kmer and now works in Phnom Penh on the revival of Cambodian culture while completing a thesis on sexual difference and the preservation of specific types of culture. The Cambodia project was originally triggered by a performance of one of Cixous's epic plays, The Terrible But Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, performed at Ariane Mnouchkine's Thetre du Soleil in 1985-86. While not every member of the audience was moved to get up and go to Cambodia, the theatre staff still recall that the atmosphere was so electric after the eight-hour drama, that the audience could not break away and go home, for hours after the performance. Cixous's latest dramatisation of contemporary history, La Ville Parjure ou le Reveil des Erinyes (The Traitor Town, or the Awakening of the Furies), explores the eternal problems of vengeance and justice as they were posed by France's contaminated blood scandal.
Cixous insists that she does not apply theories in her writing. "I never said: 'I'm going to shatter the novel'. I have a great love for narrative, for the novel, where the form is a living one. But in the age of Concorde, you can no longer write as if you were in the age of the carriage. It is not a theory, the act of writing itself imposed this on me". Cixous may not set out with a theory, but she certainly ends up with one. Her explanation of her own "non-theoretical" experience of the act of writing is followed by fervent argument: anyone writing in the traditional novel form "still in the 19th century, is in something dead".
The pre-eminence Cixous gives written language as a force for change draws fire from a school of third-world feminism which argues that this denies illiterate women any revolutionary role. It is also a position which requires excellent writing skills of Cixous's students: learning a "new form of thinking" where reading becomes a demanding search for meaning is also about learning to write. "My students are gifted at writing and able to become writers, she commented. Those students are, almost without exception, from abroad, because France has no academic teaching posts in women's studies and therefore no prospects for French postgraduates. Eric Prenowitz, a PhD student, first came across her seminar as a US physics undergraduate visiting Paris ten years ago. He admits the seminar is "demanding, as everything in the US is clear and codified". Mara Negron did her thesis with Cixous and has now got a post in her home university teaching Puerto Rico's first course on women and literature. She returns for the seminar. "I go for pleasure. Hel ne sweeps away the dust, even from the classics and always comes up with something new one hadn't seen before," she said.
Her own view of the demands made on the seminar? "It's a question of scientific and human rigour, of going further, making a commitment", Cixous said and left for a committee meeting on aid for Algerian writers in exile.