Helene Cixous (1937-) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Helene Cixous (1937-)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Helene Cixous was born in Oran, Algeria. She studied in France and completed her doctorate in 1968. In the next year she published her dissertation, The Exile of James Joyce. She began teaching at the Universite de Bordeaux and held positions at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris X (Nanterre). A year after the student uprisings in May 1968, Cixous was put in charge of developing curriculum for the new experimental University of Paris VIII (Vincennes). Along with Tzvetan Todorov and Gerard Genette, Cixous started Poetique, a journal for new criticism and theory.

Cixous was part of a generation of theorists on the rise during the turbulent 1960s. Her peers and colleagues at this time were Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, and a host of others teaching in universities across France. She was especially close to Derrida, also born in Algeria of Jewish background. Cixous's literary theory was boldly innovative, as were her fiction and drama. In all of her writings, she resists the patriarchal power behind Western philosophical and theoretical traditions. “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (1990) articulate her critique of these traditions and advocate an alternative discourse form, ECRITURE FEMININE (feminine writing, writing the body). The Newly Born Woman (1975), written with Catherine Clement, reconsiders the Freudian scenario in which the little girl seduces her father and suggests that it needs to be rewritten in terms of women seeking new representational forms based on their own “libidinal economies.” Her later theoretical work focuses on aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Cixous created innovative fictions like The Book of Promethea (1983), which shows the influence in her writing of Ukraine-born Brazilian novelist Clarise Lispector. Cixous’ dramatic work also underwent a shift at this time after meeting Ariane Mnouch- kine, experimental director at the Theatre du Soleil to which she contributed several plays, including The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia (produced in 1985), that explored the nature of power, responsibility, and memory. Cixous continues to write fiction and theory. In 2000, she published a collection of memoirs, Daydreams of the Wild Woman.


Cixous, Helene. “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays. Ed. Deborah Jenson, Trans. Sarah Cornell, Deborah Jenson, Ann Liddle, Susan Sellers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

---- . The Helene Cixous Reader. Ed. Susan Sellers. New York Routledge, 1994. . “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 875-93.

---- . Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Trans. Susan Sellers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

---- and Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.