Cixous, Hélène

Assigned: Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1869-86). Also read the editors’ introduction (1865-68).

“The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975/1976)

1. On 1869-70 (“I shall speak about women’s…”), Hélène Cixous begins by connecting writing with female desire and sexuality. She also says that “The future must no longer be determined by the past…” (1869). What is the connection between these two imperatives involving women’s history and sexual and expressive liberation? What relation is Cixous also positing between writing and female sexual pleasure? Finally, in what sense (including the title) does Cixous from the outset signal her interest in reinterpreting the ancient Greeks’ Medusa legend? In responding, look up the basic myth and then consider Cixous’ own question, “Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives […] hasn’t accused herself of being a monster?” (1870). How, then, have women been led to internalize the supposed lesson of what happened to Medusa?

2. On 1870-71 (“And why don’t you write…”), what forces, according to Cixous, have long kept women from writing about their experiences and fully expressing themselves? How have the male reading public’s dominance and the powerful publishing industry that caters to it, for example, repeatedly rejected “the true texts of woman” (1870)? What does Cixous suggest about men as writers and about male sexuality, in particular in footnote 4 on page 1870?

3. On 1871-72 (“Here they are, returning, arriving…”), Cixous concentrates on how male ideology has been guilty of “brainwashing” women over many centuries: “Men have committed the greatest crime against women” (1871), she writes. What offense is she referring to here? She writes that the current task is “to liberate the New Woman from the Old” (1871) What makes finding pieces of writing (fictional or otherwise) that might provide some of the necessary insight and knowledge so difficult? How does Cixous describe the currently available writing by women about women? What limitations mark this writing so that it cannot provide a reliable guide for the future?

4. On 1872-73 (“Nearly the entire history of writing…”), Cixous mentions that there have been a small number of “exceptions” and “failures” within the history of what she calls “the phallocentric tradition” (1872) that constitutes writing’s history up to her own time. In what sense have those failures or exceptions provided opportunities for women? Why are such opportunities, such alternative visions, provided only by poets such as Heinrich von Kleist, and not by male writers of fiction? Why does the latter genre prove such infertile ground for these alternative visions?

5. On 1873-74 (“She must write her self, because…”), Cixous says that women must express their own being, their own desires; how does she describe more closely what is to be expressed? She also emphasizes “seizing the occasion to speak” (1873). How can this be accomplished? How does Cixous address the difficulties she says all women have experienced at the prospect of speaking in public? Even so, what positive difference from traditional “male” public speech does she attribute to women’s acts of speaking, their utterances in public? In what sense is it true, according to Cixous, that women have “a privileged relationship with the voice,” and even that when they write, they write “in white ink” (1874)?

6. On 1874-76 (“Woman for women.—There always…”), Cixous calls for a sexual and ideological transformation in the understanding of female identity and power: she writes, “We will rethink womankind beginning with every form and every period of her body” (1875). In what does this rethinking consist? What kinds of political and social change does Cixous suggest will become possible with this thorough process of rethinking who “woman” is and with the final rejection of the phallocentric definitions that have limited “woman”? Finally, why, according to Cixous, is it necessarily impossible “to define a feminine practice of writing…” (1876)?

7. On 1876-77 (“Hence the necessity to affirm…”), what two things does Cixous suggest should be kept in mind in any attempt to come nearer to an understanding of how a truly feminine writing will take shape? (1876) What three common but false claims, according to Cixous, are often advanced about the nature of writing? What does she apparently mean by her transformed term “bisexuality” (1876) in connection with writing, and why is it important to her theory of women’s writing? How does Cixous interpret the role of Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice in repressing women? How, in her view, has Freudianism ultimately been bad for men, too?

8. On 1877-79 (“Here we encounter the inevitable…”), how does Cixous use the masculinist Freudian theory—the notion that female identity and sexuality are founded upon “lack” and that only the male drama over castration anxiety really matters? (1877-78) Over against this, what powers does Cixous attribute to female sexuality and female writing? How does she radically refashion the ancient myth of the Medusa who turns men to stone, and about which Freud produced his own interpretation centering on castration anxiety? In Cixous’ telling, who or what is Medusa? (1878-79)

9. On 1879-81 (“When the ‘repressed’ of their culture…”), how does Cixous describe the quality and intensity of the female escape from repression that she believes will lead to a time when “the Phallic period comes to an end” (1879)? With regard to gender relations, she writes, “Nor is the point to appropriate their [i.e., men’s] instruments, their concepts, their places, or to begrudge them their position of mastery” (1880). What, then, is the revolutionary outcome Cixous seems to be envisioning here? What do the twin metaphors of “flight” and “theft” (1880) have to do with her strategy for feminine liberation and for a new kind of feminine writing? Ultimately, what freedom does she credit women with having that men do not, due to the latter gender’s dominance and anxiety about that dominance? (1880-81)

10. On 1881-82 (“I shall have a great deal to say…”), Cixous, as the Norton editors point out, adapts the anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ study of “the Gift” for her own purposes. In Cixous’ version, the concept centers on an economy of excess and plenty rather than parsimony and restrictive, obligatory transactional dealings. Cixous seems most interested in describing female qualities in such generous terms; how, then, does she make this attribution on the pages here of interest? What are some of the metaphors she employs to intensify a reader’s sense of the kind of generosity she evidently means to evoke, and how effective do you find them? Explain.

11. On 1882-84 (“Woman be unafraid of any other…”), what does Cixous suggest about the life-path that, in traditional terms, would be seen as proper for women—having children, subordinating oneself to a man, and sacrificing oneself for the good of one’s family? (1882-83) How does she cast women who continue to follow the traditional “get married, have kids, and serve your husband and family” path in life? (1884) How does Cixous tie this traditional way of life to the castration-anxiety regime she has been describing throughout “The Laugh of the Medusa”?

12. On 1885-86 (“Yes, the naives to the first and…”), Cixous continues from the previous few pages what we might call the peroration (concluding exhortation) of her essay. At this point, what attitude does she set forth as productive for women who want to achieve liberation from the phallocentric order, from the male-dominated “economy” of power and desire? What kind of “love” (1885) impels and seems to be the aim of the feminism Cixous promotes in “The Laugh of the Medusa”? What does she say should be rejected, and what embraced? Finally, on the whole, what is the basis of Cixous’ optimistic arguments in this essay, especially in these final pages?

13. General question: What are your thoughts about Hélène Cixous’ prose style in “The Laugh of the Medusa”? In what ways does she illustrate the kind of writing she calls for? How might it be argued that Cixous’ essay itself is “the laugh of the Medusa”? In responding, consider, for example, the way she refashions the ancient legend to suit her own feminist purposes, and the exuberant ways in which she rejects traditional male discourses about women, gender relations, and sexuality. In addition, read what the Norton editors write in their introduction, especially the brief section about “écriture féminine” and deconstruction on 1866-68. In what ways does Cixous the writer go about avoiding a simple assertion of “the female” as the new model for humanity, and promote instead “a logic of heterogeneity and multiplicity” (editors’ introduction 1868)?

14. General question: At one point in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous writes, “Once more you’ll say that all this smacks of ‘idealism,’ or what’s worse, you’ll splutter that I’m a ‘mystic’” (1884). Indeed, there has long been a debate in feminist discourse regarding the appropriateness of mainstream, practical feminism on the one side, and various brands of highly theoretical feminism on the other. How do you read the French poststructuralist author Cixous’ work with respect to this opposition between a practical, materialist feminism and a feminism that is mostly about theorizing and philosophizing, taking apart the binaries of phallocentrism, and so forth? Does Cixous fit easily into the latter camp, or is the opposition itself perhaps too stark and constraining to be useful? Can the two approaches relate to each other in productive ways? Is Cixous, for all her “high-theory” liberational prose celebrating generosity and excess, offering practical suggestions for women’s material and social advancement in the world? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake