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This book provides a lucid, wide-ranging and up-to-date critical introduction to the writings of Hélène Cixous (1937–). Cixous is often considered ‘difficult’. Moreover she is extraordinarily prolific, having published dozens of books, essays, plays and other texts. Royle avoids any pretence of a comprehensive survey, instead offering a rich and diverse sampling. At once expository and playful, original and funny, this micrological approach enables a new critical understanding and appreciation of Cixous’s writing. If there is complexity in her work, Royle suggests, there is also uncanny simplicity and great pleasure. The book focuses on key motifs such as dreams, the supernatural, literature, psychoanalysis, creative writing, realism, sexual differences, laughter, secrets, the ‘Mother unconscious’, drawing, painting, autobiography as ‘double life writing’, unidentifiable literary objects (ULOs), telephones, non-human animals, telepathy and the ‘art of cutting’. Particular stress is given to Cixous’s work in relation to Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida, as well as to her importance in the context of ‘English literature’. There are close readings of Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, P. B. Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, for example, alongside in-depth explorations of her own writings, from Inside (1969) and ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975) up to the present. Royle’s book will be of particular interest to students and academics coming to Cixous’s work for the first time, but it will also appeal to readers interested in contemporary literature, creative writing, life writing, narrative theory, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, ecology, drawing and painting.
This concluding chapter proposes four neologisms for thinking about Cixous’s writings (and thus for gathering together the concerns of the book as a whole). 1) The nanoment (portmanteau of ‘nano-’ and ‘moment’) refers to something very brief, an abrupt, fleeting, interruptive, unforeseen moment that nonetheless has strange power of illumination or expansion. It offers opportunities to construe life, the world, ourselves and others anew. 2) ‘Narratoid’ (a portmanteau of ‘narration’ and ‘meteoroid’) refers to the ULO (‘unidentifiable literary object’), to the found (as if falling from the heavens) quality of certain words and phrases in Cixous, and to the way that these can explode and impact across a text. 3) ‘Omnicisence’ (a play on ‘omniscience’) refers to the sense that, in Derrida’s phrase, ‘there is no atom’. ‘Omnicisence’ is about Cixous’s ‘art of cutting’. It entails a way of thinking about literature (especially fictional narrative) that does not, however discreetly, rely on religious thinking (so-called narrative omniscience). 4) ‘Ornithophony’ (Cixous’s invention) alludes to all the ways in which thinking about human life, art and literature (especially voice and music) is bound up with birds. This is illustrated through a reading of Ulysses and Cixous’s The Exile of James Joyce.
This chapter elaborates a theory of side thinking out of Cixous’s work. Side thinking has to do with previously unrecognised ways of thinking centre and margin, the explicitation of a logic of the side and side-effects, supplement and parergon, the effects of a thinking that operates on structures by a certain sideswiping or sidelining within. I develop this argument through a close reading of Cixous’s FirstDays of the Year (starting with its use of the eerie third-person formulation, thought the author, and its pervasive contention that ‘thinking is not what you think’), alongside Jacques Derrida’s H.C. for Life, That Is to Say… ‘Side thinking’ engages with a diverse array of topics, including amphibology, telepathy, literature and psychoanalysis, love and friendship, climate change, Brexit and nationalism. Extensive attention is given to the work of Samuel Beckett (in particular Endgame, Happy Days and Embers) and to Cixous’s book Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett.
How does one finish a book about Hélène Cixous, a writer who is endlessly concerned with open ends, with what she calls ‘the book I don’t write’, and with the conviction that, quite apart from the living, ‘no dead person has ever said their last word’? ‘All wards’ is a neologistic formulation suggested by Cixous as a way of thinking about both writing and life. Exploration of the phrase leads to a discussion of ‘lingophobia’ (‘fear of language’ as well as ‘fear of the tongue’) and the ‘unidentifiable literary object’ (ULO), a term that, it is suggested, describes as well as any other the kind of texts she writes. At stake here is a distinction between realism and what Cixous calls ‘realistizing’. This chapter focuses on the concept of character (the subject of her remarkable early essay ‘The Character of “Character”’) and also explores the figure of the ULO in the context of Nicholas Royle’s An English Guide to Birdwatching and Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, as well as Shakespeare.
This chapter argues that the writings of Cixous and Derrida offer new ways of thinking about psychoanalysis. Neither was ever ‘in analysis’; both are committed, however, to what Derrida calls the ‘psychoanalytic revolution’, i.e. the only revolution ‘not to rest, not to seek refuge, in principle, in … a theological or humanist alibi’. Both Cixous and Derrida are constantly interested, also, in the ways in which Freud’s thinking at once falters at and illuminates the question of literature. This chapter investigates these issues in particular in terms of the notions of telepathy and magic. As was noted in Chapter 3, Freud is for Cixous ‘the Shakespeare of the night’: attention is here given to what she calls Freud’s ‘cartography of dreams’ and its correspondences with the work of Joseph Popper-Lynkeus (especially ‘Phantasies of a Realist’), as a basis for thinking about realism and hyperrealism, fantasy, dream and what Derrida terms ‘literary hyperconscience’. This leads in turn to a discussion of Cixous’s favourite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
For several decades the importance of Cixous’s work In the English-speaking world has been represented primarily in terms of ‘feminism’, ‘feminist theory’ and ‘women’s writing’. This chapter proposes that it might more aptly be construed in terms of ‘the uncanny’, the troublingly strange and/or strangely familiar. This figure, it is argued, also proves crucial for understanding the affinities between Cixous and Derrida. Particular attention is given to Cixous’s reading of Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ in her remarkable essay ‘Fiction and Its Phantoms’ (1972), together with her somewhat later reflections on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. F. W. J. Schelling memorably described the feeling of the uncanny as arising when ‘what ought to have remained secret and hidden … comes to light’. This sense of unveiling links up with Cixous’s reading of Carroll as the author of ‘escaping texts’, where ‘escape’ is understood first of all as literally ‘getting out of one’s cape’. Exposition of another ‘cloak’-word, Humpty Dumpty’s neologistic ‘portmanteau’ (literally, ‘cloak-’ or ‘mantle- carrying’), leads to an account of Cixous’s work as double- or portmanteau-writing. The portmanteau comes to designate an uncanny double logic of the ‘escaping text’ and what ‘escapes text’.
‘Cixous cuts’ are also about the desire for ‘no cut’, for the sort of seamless, cut-resistant writing that Cixous admires in Clarice Lispector. Such seamlessness is also an element of dreams. This chapter explores further the notion of ‘writing by dream’. While Joyce might seem the obvious precursor in this context, here it is argued that the writer with whom Cixous has most in common as one who ‘writes by dream’ is Lewis Carroll. This chapter seeks to elaborate on the affinities between Carroll and Cixous developed in the preceding chapter (‘Portmanteau’), through a detailed reading and analysis of the figure of the ‘cut’ in the Alice books. Cuts are everywhere in Carroll’s work, but even in the most mortifying example (decapitation) they are always strangely innocuous. This chapter argues that Carroll’s books do something new in the history of English fiction with the figure of the ‘cut’, above all through the logic whereby (in Cixous’s words) ‘effects precede their causes: first the piece of cake is eaten, then it is cut’. The Alice books emerge as key texts for understanding Cixous’s double concern with trauma and with narrative composition as (in the White Queen’s uncanny phrase) ‘living backwards’.
This chapter is an extended meditation on the beauty and polyphonic possibilities of the English word ‘away’, specifically in terms of how it enables a critical reading and appreciation of Cixous’s writing as escaping, in flight, going ‘away’, as text – but also as sound or music. This involves a detailed reading of Cixous’s ‘Writing Blind’ and Kafka’s ‘The Departure’, as well as extended discussion of how ‘away’ works in Shakespeare (especially Antony and Cleopatra), Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar. A critical close reading of Paul de Man on Keats’s ode discloses a new emphasis on the haunting inscription of ‘away’ in the poem. This leads back to a further encounter with ‘dream in literature’, wherein the writings of Cixous, Shakespeare and Keats sound together in the figure of the nightingale.
This short chapter describes how the author wakes up awash in the sounds of seagull cries, and recalls having dreamed of receiving a letter from Freud (written in English, nearly eighty years after his death). All that can be recalled of the letter is a feeling of great pleasure and the phrase ‘probably not’. Pondering what to make of all this, the author telephones Cixous to ask for her thoughts. We are all insane in our dreams, Freud noted in his earliest work, Studies on Hysteria: comparison is made between the insanity of Sigmund Freud and the insanity of Donald Trump. Contrast is made between Freud’s openness to thinking the other, and Trump’s position in which, as Howard Jacobson puts it, ‘nothing strange to him is allowed entry’. Finally, attention is given to the question of ‘dream treatment’, above all the question of (in Cixous’s words in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing) ‘how to treat the dream as dream’.
This brief chapter offers a reading of Reveries of the Wild Woman: Primal Scenes. Like other chapters bearing the title ‘Cixous cuts’, this involves a discussion of the multiple senses of ‘cut’ in her work. Like every other book Cixous has published, Reveries of the Wild Woman: Primal Scenes is full of cuts of different kinds. Particular attention is given to the ways in which her ‘primal scenes’ are at once allied with Freud’s conception of this term and discreetly but significantly at odds with it. The chapter focuses above all on the traumatic, traumatised passage in Reveries of the Wild Woman in which Cixous recalls, as a seven-year-old in Algeria, witnessing the terrible fate of a veiled young Muslim girl on a Ferris wheel in 1944. This is announced as the ‘tale of a girl who gets cut in two’ and provides the final, most horrifying ‘primal scene’ in Cixous’s book.