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No 45.

Hélène Cixous

in conversation with Lauren O'Neill-Butler

Born in 1937 in Oran, colonial Algeria, Hélène Cixous is a major figure in literature, feminist theory, and criticism. She is the author of over seventy books, which have been mainly published in French. She was the house playwright for Ariane Mnouchkine’s theater company, the Théâtre du Soleil, for forty years. With her concept of écriture féminine (feminine writing), as espoused in her landmark 1976 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous encouraged women to explore the possibilities and freedoms of their sexual identity. Her most recent title, Well-Kept Ruins (Seagull Books, 2021), is an experimental memoir primarily about her late mother, Eve Klein, and her hometown, Osnabrück, Germany. Cixous is currently an emeritus professor at the Université de Paris 8, where she created the first doctoral program in Women’s Studies in 1974. I wanted to ask her about her life and work, by having her map out how she became the multi-hyphenate, multi-selved medusa that she is today. The conversation took place in January 2023. We laughed a lot.

LO-B

I’m always interested in people who were born between World War I and World War II, but your history is particularly remarkable: your father was a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors had come from Spain, and your mother was an Ashkenazi Jew from Germany.

HC

Yes, I was born just at the edge of the second World War. My childhood was one of war.

LO-B

It seems like it was very grim to grow up in Algeria at this time, among the different oppressed indigenous populations and French antisemitism from the Nazi-aligned Vichy government. How aware were you of the effects of colonialism as a child?

HC

I was extremely conscious. From an early age, when I was three, I was aware of it. Of course, I could make out the fact that there was oppression: the Arabs were oppressed; the Jews, who had been there for centuries, were too. With the Crémieux Decree in 1870 many of the Jews there received French citizenship, though my family gained French nationality before that—before the Republic Frenchified all the Jews in Algeria. That decree caused a terrible gap between the different indigenous populations in Algeria and activated all possible hostilities. So, the Arabs believed that the Jews were colonizers, which they were not. As a child, I thought we were of the same origin, that we shared the same experience. When the second World War started, it was the French striking the Jews, much more so than the Arabs, because there was a war between different enemies. And then in 1940, when the French started collaborating with Hitler, the Jews were thrown out.

LO-B

You became stateless.

HC

Yeah, and not only stateless. Of course, it was “-less” everything.

LO-B

Non-human, as Arendt would say.

HC

Nothing existed. I still remember the terrible shock it was for my father. He was deeply hurt in every way—ethically, politically—and he never recovered from that. It was beyond all understanding for everyone.

LO-B

Would you say that this was when your philosophical life began?

HC

Yes, it was when I was three—and it is my primal scene of sorts. I used to walk along an extraordinary public garden. It was very beautiful, encircled with all kinds of railings. It was called the cercle militaire. It was accessible only for people who worked in the army. My father was a doctor but in 1939 he was called to serve in the army as a lieutenant. I saw him being changed, as if in a fairytale. Suddenly he was somebody else in a costume. I couldn't even recognize him in a couple of months. Then, what happened was that suddenly the paradise of this Eden, the garden, opened for us. We would go there with my brother, who is younger than me. It was a fantastic experience for us—to be suddenly admitted. And curiously, although I imagined that we had walked in inside, as in Kafka, we just didn’t reach the inside. We were outside-inside, I mean. I couldn’t understand how there was a community of children who were playing, et cetera, but who were not admitted.

And after a while, I heard some children—who were white-skinned and fair haired—speak of stamps all the time. They were a bit older, maybe five or six. And I thought, oh, that is the shibboleth. I should have known that you have to know the magic word to get inside. So, very proudly, I said, “I have stamps, I can bring stamps,” which was true because my German family, on my mother’s side, corresponded throughout the world. They were all exiled, refugees, et cetera, having fled from Germany, and so they were everywhere in the world and would send letters from all kinds of countries, which we received. I was used to seeing stamps in the house. Suddenly, a little fair-haired girl almost spat on my head and shouted, “Liar!” I looked up at her not understanding why she would treat me like that, and then she said, “All Jews are liars.”

I was thunderstruck, I thought, “All Jews are liars, but what does that mean?” I wasn’t even certain that I was a Jew—and a liar I was sure I wasn’t. But then I was accused of being a liar. It was as if a sword had pierced my chest. I felt I was hated, and I felt hatred. Slowly I left the paradise of the garden and ruminated on it. I thought, “What am I going to do now? If I bring the stamps, it’s as if I crawl in front of them, and I’m a coward. If I don’t bring the stamps, all Jews are liars.” That was my first dilemma. There was no solution. It was exactly the picture of the world—of what was waiting for me outside the garden, which we were thrown out of immediately after, and then thrown out of everything, of course, out of the army, everything.

So, I had no solution. And anyway, there was no garden anymore. It was hell. I think that’s how I started thinking. The event remained with me. I kept trying to find an answer to the unanswerable. I elaborated all kinds of answers. Once I thought, “I’m going to kill myself.” Or maybe not myself—but the fair-headed girl, who was around my age. I thought, “Now you’re going to pay for me.” But how could I kill her?

LO-B

A few years later your father dies, in 1948.

HC

I was ten.

LO-B

And to support the family, your mother became a midwife.

HC

It took my mother a couple of years before she knew what to do. You know, she was a widow. She was alone. She didn’t know anyone in the city. We had just moved from Oran, my native town, to Algiers, knowing no one. The family of my father was left in Oran. After a while, my mother found her way. Somebody said to her, “Why don’t you try and become a midwife?” She was really born to be a midwife. She was a fantastic midwife. So, she started studying and then I was fourteen when she started working. And I went with her to the hospital and learned so much. For me, it was a great, earnest, honorable way of dealing with life—of how to live, how to earn a living.

LO-B

I wondered if it made you feel more connected to women, philosophically?

HC

Yes, but of course I didn’t theorize. I learned through experiment, you know? For instance, when my mother was too busy, if she was helping a woman to give birth, she would ask me to replace her for an injection. I didn’t dare tell her that I was terrified. I was terrified by the bodies of the women who had suffered. I saw all kinds of things, such as women who were not aborting actively, because it was illegal—but of course it would still happen. Sometimes I couldn’t even recognize the shape of their bodies. I remember seeing a woman whose tummy was completely unrecognizable. And I thought, “I’ve never seen such a terrible sickness. What is it?” So, I asked my mother, “What does she suffer of?” And she said, “She suffers of having had fifteen children.”

I sided with women naturally. My whole family at that point was women. My German grandmother was a widow. It was natural to be with women. I spent my youth in a world of women who were, and who insisted to be, witnesses to the fate of women.

LO-B

That’s fascinating. And then you leave Algeria and arrive in France in 1955, at eighteen. You’ve said that is when you first encountered misogyny.

HC

Yes. But first, I fled from Algeria. I knew from my early childhood that I wouldn’t stay and couldn’t stay. It was a cruel country. Unfair. Immoral. Brutal. So, my idea was the moment I could leave, I shall leave. I had no hope—no hope for freedom, no hope for any betterment of the situation of people. It was a very hard decision, however, because I left my mother. My friend, my protection, etcetera. But I thought I must flee from her without hesitation. So, the moment I was legally free, I left, and I went . . . where? I didn’t know. France didn’t exist to me. I just knew that I needed to go north, out of North Africa. Arriving in France, I was a foreigner. I wasn’t so much a foreigner in Algeria.

One of the things that struck me in France, however, was the disappearance of antisemitism. Usually in Algeria, everywhere I went I was followed or accompanied by the drop of an insult: “Jew. Jew. Jew.” That didn’t happen in Paris. And I thought, how’s that possible? [Laughs.]. But, in fact, it was historically determined. There were no Jews left in France. They had all been deported. By the way, when I went back to Algeria ten years ago, I realized that something similar had happened. There were no Jews left in Algeria. The new generations in Algeria didn’t know about the history of Jews there. So, I thought, well, that’s also a surprise.

But there was something else in the air in France at the time, which was stuffy. There were only men at the university I attended. Something again was there like a barrier, and you couldn’t overcome the repulsion that you felt. I analyzed it and I realized it was misogyny. So, I thought, “Well, the enemy is not what I originally thought. It was not antisemitism, but misogyny.” And, of course, then you have to make a decision. Are you going to be a fighter? And how are you going to choose your fight? Are you going to take part in the fight for the rights of women or for the rights of Jews? I thought you couldn’t do both. That remained a question for me. I thought there was a main cause—the women’s cause. But then of course these fights join, and you can't really separate them. You have to fight all the fights.

LO-B

There must have been many factors contributing to your decision to fight all the fights. Was it difficult to raise young children while you were gaining your PhD? Did having children influence your work on feminism? And what was this like during the riots of May 1968 in Paris?

HC

No, I’ve always said the truth about this—for me, it wasn’t a problem. I didn’t see having children as anti-feminist. Women are strong. They can raise children and study, all at the same time. I divorced very early, and then I was alone with my children, and I arranged my life according to that—being very happy with my children. In fact, I was happy that I had them so early. It was an excellent choice because when they were twenty, they were my friends. And I’ve always thought that the best student I ever had was my own daughter.

They took part in every protest and all the actions I was in. When they were kids, they were there with me in ’68. At that time my daughter was ten. They enjoyed it. For them, it was a game—they would play with me in the streets and on the barricades. I was lucky. I might have had enemy-children, but no, they were friend-children.

LO-B

And then in 1971, your mother was chased out of Algeria. You write powerfully in Well-Kept Ruins about this and your dreams of being forced to flee. These dreams, fueled by your memory, seem very vivid.

HC

I’ve never had a problem with memory because it has organized everything I’ve thought. I’m a very concrete person, as my mother was. So, I can think only with the help of events. That’s what I use to feed my different rebellions, et cetera. My memory is extremely rich. It’s too rich. [Laughs.] My family was multicultural and multilingual. Through them, I inherited the whole history of Europe, very powerfully—from North Africa, and the history of colonization, and Germany and the problems there, and France. I’ve always had to juggle with this multiplicity. And again, in the 1970s I wondered, “Should I be principally on women’s side or with the Jews against antisemitism?” There are these two different worlds from which I received a wealth of experiences to organize my thought. Strangely, if I look back on what I’ve written, sometimes I think it’s always the two together, the work of the double all the time. And of course, more than double.

LO-B

Absolutely, you’ve been role model for how to be a many-selved person. Okay, so then in 1974, you organized the first program in Europe on gender studies. What are your thoughts about the field now? It is once again under attack in the United States.

HC

It’s the same situation here in France. We repeat everything that happens in the US. Gender studies departments are being attacked from inside of the university and at the level of government. The world goes this way—we are in a destructive period. Having been a militant for women’s rights for years and years and years and years, at one point I felt bored. I thought, “This just repeats itself all the time.” So, the fight will have to start again every thirty years, and it will last for centuries. Am I obliged to be a woman all my life? It’s too boring. But sometimes you have to obey circumstances. I feel much more at ease and happier with animals of course, and that’s from the beginning of my life.

LO-B

I want to hear more about animals—but why do you think that these things repeat over time? Is it historical or cultural amnesia? Do people simply not want to remember?

HC

This has been analyzed by all kind of sociologists: every time there’s a step forward, there’s a step back. And not only for women’s rights. Take the French Revolution as an excellent example, it begins in 1789 and then the empire comes right back in a couple of years. And with the republic gone, it’s the empire, then a revolution, then a king, then a revolution, then a king, then a revolution, et cetera, until the end of the nineteenth century. Then as the republic starts being readmitted, people are resigned, but they keep the kernel of monarchy. France is a monarchy. It’s concealed by appearances, but it is.

This is the story of the planet, of mankind. If something works out, that progress destroys what it has constructed. And, once again, we are now in a period of destruction. This is also what Freud describes between Eros and Thanatos, between life and death, it goes on and on, and it won’t stop. It means that one has to be in action all the time—there’s no retirement for progress, no.

LO-B

You could say this about feminism too—it’s always moving backwards and forwards. I just don’t know what’s needed to make that incremental progress stay a little longer.

HC

Of course, we have the feeling that nothing happens. Especially if we look at the world from a restricted point of view—that is national point of view. It’s like freedom is now staying in another hotel, right? Somewhere in another country, etcetera. That is my experience as a feminist. I have had a perch from which I could observe for many years, and that was my research seminar in philosophy and literature, which has been very international for decades. So, every now and then I would see suddenly a wave of new newcomers coming from one country. And I realized that they have just reached a turning point in the history of their own culture. And it happens like that, you know—if the light has gone out where you are, it is on somewhere else.

LO-B

Yes. What else can we rely on in this time of deluge? Is there some other kind of armor that we can put on to get us through?

HC

One has to remember that we are a world, we’re not a country. We have to know that if we have a problem here, we have to deal with it, of course. But meanwhile, there are worse situations elsewhere, and better situations as well. For two years already, I cannot help but being a Ukrainian. I am Ukrainian. I look at the scenes and I read the news as if I had a Ukrainian family, which is not the case. Suddenly, I become Iranian. And so, the same situation is there in front of me. Who am I? With whom? How does it work? I don’t even think about being French anymore. It is uninteresting, disappointing, and it’s often very shameful. Urgent things are happening and that's where we have to contribute even if it’s so little to believe these things. It’s ineluctable.

For the time being, I have respect and admiration for those who fight. Peace will be established; I don’t know when, but it will happen. It always happens. When I went to my family’s German city, I had to make a speech, very officially, and I said what I thought: Osnabrück is called the city of peace, willfully and systematically, and it’s true. They educate their children with this idea of peace. It’s one of the rare cities in Germany where the extreme Right has never appeared. So, I told the mayor and the citizens who were there that now Osnabrück is a city which I can love. It doesn’t mean that it won’t see a new kind of Nazism in twenty years. I don’t know, it could happen.

LO-B

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this works with young kids, too, but more in terms of social justice education in the US.

HC

Education is the most important. Right now, it’s weak universally, and that’s a huge problem. In France, it’s incredible, the state of things at schools is a catastrophe, really.

LO-B

Here too. Very much so.

HC

I don’t envy the US, of course. I always observe what’s happening there because I know that Europe, and particularly France, always follows. So sometimes I tell myself, “Well, I wouldn’t like to go through what is happening now in the US, but we’ll have it too, the same plague in time.”

LO-B

Speaking of the plague [Laughs.], you wrote Well-Kept Ruins right before the pandemic; what it was like to work on this specific book?

HC

Well, books come. They do what they want. I just receive. And how it works or what decides the theme and how it’s going to develop—I never know. I realize that, of course, afterwards. I mean, I realize that something must have been urgent that I needed to express. And this book is . . . I don’t remember exactly, is it the fourth or the fifth book I have written very fast? When I do that, it’s always because there is a call. I receive a phone call from the spirits [Laughs.]

I start by working with archives, always. I’m very much a historian. And I have to ask questions. I can go back for centuries and even more than that, asking, “How did it happen that you arrived there? Or that you committed this terrible crime? Or that you changed for the better?”

For instance, as I say in Well-Kept Ruins, I realized something after my third or fourth journey to Osnabrück while walking down one of the streets. There were the well-kept ruins—a monument in memory of the burnt down synagogue. I had walked by it many times without seeing it. Probably I couldn’t see, or I didn’t want to see something happened. But that day, facing it, it sent me thinking about so many things—about art, archives, memory, what the synagogue was. And I realized that the synagogue was a witch. It was burnt exactly as they had burnt witches a few centuries before.

The monument is a kind of cage holding the bones of the synagogue, which went through fire and that were covered in soot, etcetera. They were cleaned very well, in a German way, and ordered as if on a shelf—very calm, very white. And of course, seeing it brought so many metaphors of men’s cruelty and the power of repression. What you see is a huge cadaver, really. And so, I could simply witness how the imaginations of men, inside of a culture, work.

LO-B

You say in the book somewhere that you wanted to unearth the city’s hidden force. I wondered if that’s even possible. Do you think you did it?

HC

I think I can, of course, unbury a number of things. The whole story of that city is one of wars and of hatred between religions, mainly between Catholics and Protestants. So, it’s a perfect example of the history of men, and how they hate one another, want to kill one another, burn one another. And it’s all located there, as if in a theater. It’s also a very beautiful city, full of traces, which I wanted to uncover.

LO-B

Well, the book is beautiful, too. And I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but I do want to know—among all your books, do you have a favorite? Is there one that is the most important?

HC

No, not at all. Because I think it’s all one huge book. I’m not, as you know, a novelist. I write the world, that’s all. I follow the work. I realize my work has been a chronicle of centuries as inscribed in the feet of families—and mostly women because I know more about women. [Laughs.]

LO-B

You uncover the traces . . .

HC

Always. I’m near-sighted, too. Even as a kid, I would always look very closely at something. [Laughs.] That’s my way of approaching the world: mostly through the details.

LO-B

And when you write about art and artists, is there anything different? Does it feel like the same sort of molecular inspection?

HC

Yes, but I can only write if my heart beats—that is, if I receive some of the artist’s emotion. Otherwise, I can’t. I’m limited with art, really. It has to speak to me; it has to tell me a story and reveal the secrets of the artist who doesn’t know necessarily what they are doing.

LO-B

A long time ago, you said that you write like a painter. Do you still feel that way?

HC

Sure, but it’s not only like a painter, of course. My process is passionate, it’s very physical. I’ve seen my friends, some excellent artists, at work. We do the same thing. For instance, my friend Pierre Alechinsky—who is ten years older than I am—he’s extraordinary. He has a large table in his atelier and about seventy or more different pencils, and he knows all of them. And when he paints, he receives a message or a sign from this or that pencil. I feel the same when I write. I also have so many different pens, pencils, and papers, of all sizes. And then the work chooses, it dictates.

LO-B

It chooses you.

HC

It chooses what it wants, or what they want.

LO-B

One more question. You mentioned the importance of animals and interspecies relations, which is a big topic now philosophically. Or maybe I should say, it’s big again . . .

HC

My life began with animals, who were suffering more than men in Algeria. I could have cried every day about the fate of the animals as ill-treated, suffering, tortured. I couldn’t recover from that, ever. In Algeria, people were cruel without any regard for those souls except my father, the doctor. In the little time that he lived, he cared for animals. He would try to heal them. There were no vets, of course in Algeria in that time. I can still see him trying to help our poor dog who was in bad shape. And I’m very thankful that my father was naturally like that.

Now, my party is the party of animals. Really. In 2017, a new party was created in France for the European elections, the Animalist Party. So, I called my vet and asked, “Can you check because I don’t want to vote for the ultraright.” And so, I voted for them. They party has gained more people. In 2022, they had over 200,000 votes.

Right now, my cats are sleeping so you won’t meet them. It’s nap time. Too bad! Usually, they will watch and hang out.