Hélène Cixous was born in 1937 in Oran, Algeria, to a multilingual, multicultural Jewish family: her father was a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors had come from Spain, and her mother was an Ashkenazi Jew from Osnabrück, Germany. Hélène Cixous grew up in Algeria, in Oran and then Algiers, before moving to France in 1955 at the age of 18 to continue her studies. The situation in Algeria was difficult for Jews: on the one hand they suffered from French anti-Semitism, particularly during the war, when the Nazi-aligned Vichy government passed laws revoking French Jews’ citizenship. On the other hand, the indigenous “Arab” population of Algeria often treated Algerian Jews as “French” enemies. This double experience of dispossession and exclusion, compounded by the death of her father in 1948, was to mark Hélène Cixous’ literary path and production profoundly. It also informed both her lifelong political engagement against all forms of exclusion and her refusal of fixed, essentialist identity labels, such as “woman,” “Jew,” or even “feminist” when defined reductively.
Hélène Cixous’ first full-length book of fiction, Dedans, won the French Medicis prize in 1969. Since then, she has published at least one book of fiction every year, now totaling upwards of 60 titles. This literary production has been the central focus of her writing life; she was described by her friend Jacques Derrida as ‘the greatest’ contemporary French writer. Her fiction explores the structures and poetic potential of language with rare intensity, continually pushing language past the limits of what it can ordinarily say. In this she is part of a long tradition of great poetic reinventors of language and thinking, from Shakespeare or Montaigne to Stendhal, Proust, Kafka and Clarice Lispector, as well as Derrida.
However, this properly literary output has been accompanied by a number of equally prolific parallel writerly activities. Cixous is a celebrated playwright, having been the ‘house author’ for Ariane Mnouchkine’s world-famous theater company, the Théâtre du Soleil, for 40 years.
Beginning in the 1960s, Cixous has also published many dozens of critical essays: these have arguably redefined the essay form with a unique combination of encyclopedic erudition, meticulous analysis and subversive literary invention. Her essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ is one of the canonical texts of feminist theory, but all her essays are turned towards pressing philosophical and political issues while taking insight from deep analyses of extraordinary works of world literature and the arts.
Meanwhile, Hélène Cixous has had a brilliant academic career. She was already a university professor during the student riots of 1968 and she was immediately put in charge of setting up the radically experimental University of Vincennes (now the Université de Paris 8), which opened its doors the following year. She insisted on bringing the new generation of French academics to Vincennes, including her friends Foucault, Deleuze and Lacan. It was here that she created the first French doctoral program in Women’s Studies in 1974. She has taught a renowned research seminar in literature and philosophy continuously since that time. A first volume covering three years of the seminar appeared in 2020, and another will be out soon.
Hélène Cixous is now Emeritus Professor and teaches at Paris 8 and the Collège International de Philosophie. Among other academic appointments, she was Distinguished Visiting Professor at Northwestern University from 1995-2003, Honorary Professor at the University of Sussex from 2001-4, and A.D. White Professor-at-large at Cornell University from 2007-9.
Cixous’s book-length publications in English translation include The Exile of James Joyce (1972), Inside (1986), The Newly Born Woman (1986), ‘Coming to Writing’ and Other Essays (1991), The Book of Promethea (1991), Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (1993), Manna (1994), The Hélène Cixous Reader (1994), Rootprints (1997), Stigmata (1998), First Days of the Year (1998), The Third Body (1999), Veils (2002, with Jacques Derrida), Selected Plays of Hélène Cixous (2003), Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (2004), The Writing Notebooks of Hélène Cixous (2004), Dream I Tell You (2006), Reveries of the Wild Woman (2006), The Day I Wasn’t There (2006), Insister of Jacques Derrida (2007), Manhattan: Letters from Prehistory (2007), Love itself (2008), The Third Body (2009), Hyperdream (2009), So Close (2009), Zero’s Neighbor: Sam Beckett (2010), the Portable Cixous (2010), Hemlock: Old Women in Bloom (2011), Philippines (2011), Volleys of Humanity (2011), Poetry in Painting (2012), Twists and Turns in the Heart’s Antarctic (2013), White Ink: Interviews on Sex, Text and Politics (2014), Tomb(e) (2020), Mother Homer is Dead (2020), Osnabrück Station to Jerusalem (2020), We Defy Augury (2020), Well-Kept Ruins (2022).
Cixous’ plays written for and staged by the Théâtre du Soleil include The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia (1985), The Indiad or India of Their Dreams (1987), The Perjured City (1994), Drums on the Dam (1999), Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (2010).
She has received many literary awards, including the Prix Médicis (1969), prizes from the Syndicat de la critique for best theatrical work (1993-4; 2009-10) and for best theatrical production (1999-2000), the Académie française theatre prize (Grand prix du théâtre) (2018), the French National Library prize (prix de la Bibliothèque nationale française) for lifetime achievement.
She has received numerous honorary degrees, including from Queen’s University, Kingston (Canada), University of Alberta, Edmonton (Canada), York University (UK), Georgetown University, Washington D.C. (USA); Northwestern University, Evanston, Il (USA), University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI (USA), Saint Andrews University of Fife (UK), University College London (UK), University College Dublin (Ireland).
Catharine Stimpson is a University Professor at New York University and Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She was the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Her many other publications include a novel, Class Notes; a reprinted selection of essays, Where the Meanings Are: Feminism and Cultural Spaces; and extensive work on Gertrude Stein. In addition, more than 150 of her monographs, essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in Transatlantic Review, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Critical Inquiry, boundary 2, and other publications. Her extensive public service includes serving as the Chair of the National Advisory Committee of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and past president of the Association of Graduate Schools. She is former chair of the New York State Humanities Council, the Ms. Magazine Board of Scholars, and the National Council for Research on Women, as well as past president of the Modern Language Association. She serves on the boards of other educational and cultural organizations, and is on the board of Scholars at Risk and New York Live Arts. She has been awarded both Fulbright and Rockefeller Humanities Fellowships, as well as grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Photo: Hélène Cixous (c) Roberto Frankenberg
Hélène Cixous biography by Eric Prenowitz
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