Hélène Cixous and the art of dreaming

My blog guest this month is Cecily Davey who discusses Hélène Cixous’s intriguing book of dream-writing Dream I Tell You.


Hélène Cixous and the Secrets of the Unconscious

‘They tell me their stories in their language, in the twilight, all alike or almost, half gentle half cruel, before any day, any hour. I don’t wake, the dream wakes me…’

 Have  you ever been woken by a dream so strange, disturbing or beautiful that you feel an urge to write it down immediately? Have you ever wondered where your dreams come from or what they mean? I know I have many times, and this is why the opening lines of Dream I Tell You by Hélène Cixous spoke to me so profoundly when I first read them. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the book’s original publication in French, yet the experience of entering into its nocturnal world is one that I can still remember vividly. Never before had I come across a writer who was able to portray the infinitely mysterious twists and turns of the unconscious in such a believable way. My first encounter with Cixous’s writing was one of wonder and bewilderment; Dream I Tell You was simply unlike any other book that I had read before.

The fifty short narratives collected in this slim volume span ten years in Cixous’s life. They resemble a series of dreams transcribed onto paper whilst the dreamer still lingers in the transitional state of mind between sleeping and waking. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way in which it eludes traditional categories of genre. As Susan comments in her ‘Tribute’ to Cixous, the reader of Dream I Tell You is immediately drawn into a series of questions about the boundaries between different forms of literature. Does this book present us with a study of the science of psychoanalysis or an experiment in the art of creative writing? Should we read it as a dream diary or an assortment of random drafts? Do the stories we find within it count as fact or fiction? It is precisely the originality of Dream I Tell You that makes it so hard to define. I am fascinated by this book because it seems to display a unique style of writing, what I would call ‘dreamoir’. Cixous’s hybrid blend of dream and memoir reinvents the French literary tradition of le journal intime, resulting in a text which suggests new ways of understanding the very limits of literature itself. It is a work written in a language which originates in the realm of the unconscious, a place where the limits which define all categories – be they literary, sexual, temporal, or existential – can become radically reconfigured.

In her introduction to Dream I Tell You, Cixous describes the process by which the narratives of this book were compiled. It is a process which involves a particular kind of concentration: the writer of the dream must allow herself to linger in the borderland which lies in between night and day, not yet fully conscious but not entirely unconscious either. It is in this liminal state that the dream should be recorded, before the mind of the writer begins to censor, correct, or interpret it. This desire to record the dream in its most unadulterated form leads to another important observation about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing. She is not interested in translating the language of the unconscious into a logical series of symbols that can be interpreted by the conscious mind. It seems to me that what Cixous is far more interested in is how this language resists interpretation, suggesting different ways of how writing can be used to explore what lies beyond the borders of consciousness.

What appeals to me most about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing is how much more imaginative it seems when compared to that of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis and author of The Interpretation of Dreams. Though she remarks on the ingenuity of Freud’s methods of analysis, Cixous resists applying them in her own writing. She makes her intentions clear – in a tone which both parodies and pays homage to Freud by stating that hers is a ‘book of dreams without interpretation’. Cixous’s deliberate choice not to play the analyst does, I think, give all the more freedom to her readers. The fact that the narratives of Dream I Tell You are presented in no apparent order invites us to weave our own interpretive path through them.

One possible way of looking at the book would be to consider how Cixous uses her practice of dream-writing to reconceptualise the set of oppositions on which language – as a system of symbols – is based: day/night, man/woman, sun/moon, mind/body etc. This set of oppositions, as Cixous argues in her celebrated early essay ‘Sorties’, represses alternative ways of thinking that do not conform to the logic of this system. Dream I Tell You may be seen as an example of her continued effort to move towards a kind of writing which can explore these alternatives by liberating the creative force of the unconscious. The result is like opening a buried treasure trove full of jewels. Cixous’s uniqueness as a writer lies in her ability to capture the sparkling phantasmagoria of the dreaming mind before its brilliant colours begin to fade in the light of day.

Despite my attempts to understand the origins of Cixous’s work, I would not wish to lose that sense of mystery which first drew me to her writing. The feeling of being captivated by the elusiveness of language is perhaps so integral to my experience of reading Cixous because it is also central to her experience of writing. In an interview with Martin McQuillan, Cixous describes the motivation for her work in the following terms: ‘It’s as if we’re starting on a race, towards something that is far away, which is a secret.’ Her writing is what happens ‘in the chase’, and when we read it, we too are drawn into this ‘race towards the secret’. We should not be deterred if the ‘secret’ continues to elude us; it is the pleasure of the ‘chase’ that counts.


Hélène Cixous’ Dream I Tell You is translated from the French by Beverley Bie Brahic and published by Edinburgh University Press.

Cecily Davey is a PhD scholar and tutor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews. She specialises in contemporary women’s writing and particularly the work of Hélène Cixous.

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