Tribute to Hélène Cixous

Hélène Cixous celebrated her 75th birthday in Paris recently. Here is my personal tribute to her extraordinary literary oeuvre.


Before reading, came looking. Before understanding, already such surprise. For instance: Partie. Where does the book begin? Does it have two beginnings? If it does, what happens to ending? And which of the two beginnings is the ‘real’ beginning? Or can the reader choose?

Then, as the French words became more familiar, and I began to read with the aid of the very few English translations then available, more questions arose. Aha, so voler means ‘to steal’. But it also means ‘to fly’. Which is right? What happens if we allow it to mean both?

It feels impossible even to list all the gifts Hélène’s work has brought me over the years, to sum up in a few hundred words the experience of reading her. For a start, that English singular ‘work’ is all wrong, threatening as it does to conceal the extraordinary range and variety of her oeuvre.

The first text I read was a brief extract from ‘Sorties’ (Ways Out), which had been translated in a then pioneering new collection entitled New French Feminisms. I was just about to come to France for the first time and was in that awkward linguistic crossover when I still didn’t quite trust myself to read accurately in French. The effect of that first piece was extraordinary. Never before had I come across such writing. I felt the words grip hold of me viscerally: I knew that if I carried on reading the world would never be the same again. I was being shown injustice with such bravery and compassion, such understanding and force, that what had, before, been dimly perceived, suddenly became transparent.

After this, I became a regular reader of Hélène’s work, a body of which already preceded me and which grew, with new texts appearing at dazzlingly short intervals. This prolificacy is yet another of her gifts, as is the breathtaking diversity of her writing, much of which is impossible to categorise (is Le Livre de Promethea [Book of Promethea] a novel or a love poem? is Le Jour où je n’étais pas là [The Day I Was Not There] biography, autobiography or something totally new? is Rêve je te dis [Dream I Tell You] a dream diary or an imaginative exploration of the powerhouse of the unconscious?).

Actually, that word, ‘work’, is growing on me. I think one of the greatest lessons Hélène’s writing teaches is that reading is work. She asks her readers to participate in a relationship of encounter, courage, opening, discovery, change and exchange. The lirécrire (writereading), as she so brilliantly calls it, involves writer and reader working in tandem.

Reading Hélène is the hardest possible work. It was Hélène, more than anyone else, who showed me that texts are in constant dialogue with one another, and that in order to read faithfully (something else I learned to do), it is important to try to follow all the many threads writing contains. Hélène’s work is richly allusive, interwoven (one might almost say written in tandem) with the widest possible temporal, geographic and linguistic literary understanding, and reading her demonstrated the value of identifying and tracing all the multifarious references – deliberate or accidental, accurate or not – of which a text is comprised.

More than anything else, I learnt from Hélène that nothing means only one thing and that words bring gifts that can change our view. When I wrote ‘tandem’ a moment ago it gave me a new image for that experience of lirécrire. ‘Tandem’ means working alongside each other, but it also means a bicycle for two people. So I suddenly had a startling and apposite picture of reader and writing pedaling the text together in tandem, the writer at the front steering, but the reader working (that word again) just as hard behind her. In fact, the second person on a tandem is called ‘the stoker’ – literally the one who assists the driver by adding fuel to the fire. It’s Hélène’s metaphor of the reader setting light to her words all over again.

Cycling and stoking are both hard, physical labour, but the spark needed to ignite a text also requires a whole host of activities which, at the time when I first encountered Hélène’s work, fresh from an undergraduate degree in English literature, I had learned to marginalize as not properly belonging to academic criticism. Listening, for instance, to a text’s music, to the play and echo of signifiers, to the polyphony of words, and the possibilities for alternative meanings these engender. Reading with all of one’s senses (it is the case that because of Hélène’s writing about the apple I can never now read the word without salivating, without an immediate and urgent desire to bite into flesh which is suddenly so appleyapparent I can smell it). Letting oneself be touched by the text, allowing emotions as well as the intellect to guide comprehension, reading with the body.

Hélène has changed not only the way I read but the way I write, and I would like to think the way I live. Hers is a work of extraordinary generosity. She offers us the means to be transported, inviting us to ride tandem with her on a voyage of discovery, where we can, if we keep pedaling hard enough, leave ourselves behind, and encounter at last all those feared, desired, necessary and above all altering others.

Comments 1

  1. Pingback: Endings – and empathy | susan sellers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *