Verena Conley | Notes on Nietzsche and Hélène Cixous (full presentation)

Notes on Nietzsche and Hélène Cixous


When asked to comment on the relation between Hélène Cixous and Nietzsche by way of Cixous’s “Before the Law (Blanchot, Kafka, Kleist, Lispector)” in Readings (Minnesota 1991), I decided to take the suggested topic literally and address four main points that I will summarize briefly:


  1. I contextualize the topic by elaborating on the re-thinking of Nietzsche in the 1960s and 70s.
  2. What—if anything–does Cixous “borrow” from Nietzsche?
  3. Since the seminar asks the question of both Cixous and Nietzsche and Clarice Lispector and the law, I will focus on the relation shared among the three.
  4. To conclude, I will ask: what is the nature of the relation Cixous shares with Nietzsche here and now? How does–or doesn’t—Cixous reference Nietzsche today?


1.Nietzsche was part of a collective re-thinking in France in the 1960s and 70s. Following the impetus of Georges Bataille, Nietzsche was ushered onto the intellectual scene in articles penned by Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida. Deleuze hailed him among the important “minor” philosophers in a topical piece for “a major colloquium held at Cerisy-la-Salle  in 1971. A two volume publication featuring all the young philosophers (Agacinski, Deleuze, Derrida, Klossowski, Kofman, Lyotard, Pautrat and others) appears in 1972, under the title, Nietzsche aujourd’hui? (with stress placed on the question mark). In an interview, Derrida claimed that Nietzsche was an important reference both for him and for matters that other philosophers were consideredin the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Derrida, Beyond Good and Evil, The Gay Science and other pieces had signaled the end of a world driven by metaphysical binaries and the transformation of opposites into differences. For Deleuze, a critical of Hegel, the nod to Nietzsche it meant embracing a philosophy of affirmation and a doing away with resentment. For Foucault, the German philosopher engaged a critique of the subject and reason, of the relation of language to power, which could be construed as repressive but also, conversely, as a productive force.


2.Cixous did not participate in the Cerisy Colloquium.  She borrowed from all three thinkers—and even Bataille–at a time when the structural revolution fostered the crossing of formerly unassailable disciplinary boundaries. In one of her more “Nietzschean texts”, titled “Sorties” [in La jeune née (1975; The Newly Born Woman, 1986)], she urges women to write “à la folle façon nietzschéenne,” in the madly Nietzschean way. She advocates affirmation and creativity. She is openly critical of repressive moral systems that owners of power impose on their subjects. She always pulls Nietzsche towards Freud and links force or “drive” to the unconscious and to what Jean-François Lyotard called libidinal economies. There are distinctly Nietzschean overtones in her exhortations for affirmation, for the crossing of borders, for singing and dancing and of saying “yes” to life. Her appeal was not to disregard death but to recognize that life and death belong to the vitality of process and change. She urged women to say “yes” to life, just as had James Joyce’s Molly at the end of Ulysses. To write toward life (if even though from death), she argued, pertains to general economy of giving, of generosity, and not on a restricted (phallic) economy based on lack or deficit.


3.Save for a few remarks on why women cannot really be on his side, Nietzsche does not resurface in Cixous’s texts after 1975. In Readings, in the first chapter assigned to this seminar, “Writing and the Law: Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka and Lispector” (1-27), based on a seminar given at Paris 8-Saint Denis as early as 1980-81, Nietzsche’s name is invoked only once, and pejoratively, to show that the undoing of opposites in Lispector’s fictions is much stronger than in the philosopher’s reflections. When Cixous moves away from Nietzsche, she identifies his philosophy of affirmation to be a source of her own.  Thus, exceeding Nietzsche, Clarice Lispector writes from a feminine economy of generosity and not as a “woman” with a fixed identity. Lispector for Cixous goes further than Nietzsche when proposing a “second innocence” with no possibility of reversal. While reading Lispector, Cixous also encountered Heidegger and henceforth focused heavily on poetry and poiesis. While Heidegger–with Derrida and Kierkegaard–figures on her list of decisive philosophical “readings,” Nietzsche does not.


Dating from the 1980s, Cixous’s preoccupation with the law corresponds to a moment when many philosophers (Derrida, Lyotard among them) work on questions concerning human rights. Derrida gathered essays into a book he titled Du droit à la literature, the doble entendre of which plays on “the right to literature” and the passage “from law to literature.”  Cixous focuses on “la loi,” on symbolic law and law in relation to a scene of writing, a primal scene that does not as much inaugurate a “structure” than give birth to a “subject” in an ever-ongoing fashion (là-je-une-nais). Unlike a Nietzschean, such as Deleuze, for whom desire is part of a process of becoming, Cixous stages writing in a theater of the unconscious. She envisages the unconscious as an immense reservoir from which subjects, especially “women”, are urged to write. Writers and artists for her are generally fluid, uncertain beings in constant metamorphosis. Identities are always imposed from the outside. Cixous asks, who in me writes? Who speaks? What voices? In “Writing and the Law,” she addresses the question of writing and the law in terms of gender. The answer is clear: the male writers, some consumed by guilt, respect the law. Lispector’s protagonist, Joana, from Near to the Wild Heart does not (New Directions Book, 1990, subsequent reference being made to this edition). Joana does not, however, “transgress” the law. For her, the law is but a word. She steals a book because she wants to do it. She has access to her desire (45-46). “Evil” for her is “not to live” (47). Joana moves in a different economy where there is no opposition between innocence and guilt. Hers is a double innocence without possible reversal. Near to the Wild Heart is outside of culture (or rather, civilization) with all its powerful symbolic, restrictive laws. A writing out of such a general economy is the very stuff of Lispector’s work. Perhaps inspired by Nietzsche but, Cixous claims,    it goes further than the philosopher ever did. Joana asks: “What does it matter what it really is? (…) The bed gradually disappears, the walls of the room recede, collapse in ruins. And I am in the world, as free and lithe as a colt on the plain” (62). Imagination goes beyond any kind of representation. This, Cixous argues, is very different from Joyce for whom young Stephen adheres to the refrain of “if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes” (Readings, 7) For Cixous Stephen’s writing is cast under the sign of guilt and death that, in turn, produce effects of life. At the level both of form and content Lispector writes from death toward life.


4.How about Nietsche aujourd’hui?, in 2017? Forty-five years after the publication of the two volume 10/18 paperback edition that had such an impact at the time, can Nietzsche be a reference for what Cixous is trying to think today? Can he be a reference for “us”? What today do we make of difference, of thinking in the margins, of becoming-minoritarian, of losing identities or of circulating in a “general” economy? What of being “political” in a world that is more focused on how to compose, how to be in common, or on how to engage modes of existence that may not be purely linguistic?  In an interview with Kathleen O’Grady (March 1996), Cixous reiterates her affirmation of life and declares to be “religiously atheistic.” There is God but God is writing, that is, God is a deity of infinity. We can compare Cixous’s statement to the last paragraph of the Lispector story. Joana writes: “I shall be as light and vague as something felt rather than understood, I shall transcend myself in waves, oh, God, […] for I need only…[185]). Some of Cixous’s texts, even in Readings, allude more specifically to history and historical events. Yet these texts are not “more” political than the others. As a writer Cixous works on a textual level. She is political at the level of language and writing, never in a more restricted sense. At times, she declares, she will go down into the street and to protest. We should not confuse levels. A writer is not a lawyer. Each combats with her own means.  Through writing Cixous asserts life and pushes back every form and manner of death . Derrida makes the point in a lecture (of almost eight hours’ duration) at another Cerisy conference in 2002, this time on Hélène Cixous, H.C. pour la vie, c’est-à-dire…(H.C. For Life, that is to say…). And just how does she say it?  We cannot be afraid, she declares, in the same interview, my worst fear is fear. We can compare her words with the last line of the Lispector text: “(…) I need only fulfill myself and then nothing will impede my path until death-without-fear; from whatever struggle or truce, I shall rise as strong and comely as a young colt” (186).


What then are the possible Nietzschean “themes” in Cixous? She never writes out of ressentiment but, more often, for and with the animal within her. She moves from culture—or rather, civilization—to “nature” or a certain “wildness,” near the heart or the seat of affect and emotion. Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart has echoes in Rêveries de la femme sauvage (2000; Rêveries of the Wild Woman, 2006), both a place and a metaphor. Cixous composes her words from the heart, from the seat of affect and emotion, there where symbolic laws are but a word (See Etienne Balibar’s essay on Globalization in documenta x, 1995 on the deadly influence of symbolic laws). She goes beyond “evil” that, for her as for Lispector, is a way of denying life, of living in death (In a recent article on Clint Eastwood and The Departed, Jacques Ranciere shows how “evil” dehistoricizes and mythifies). Cixous privileges literature and the writer.


Does she romanticize the writer, the artist? Does she borrow this romantic tenor from Nietzsche or from Heidegger? Does she become less exuberant, more meditative when she moves from one to the other? She continues to say that she has “faith in literature:” “Je crois à la littérature.” (By contrast, Deleuze says: “il faut croire au monde,” we have to believe in the world.) The literature Cixous discusses is mainly from a modernist canon.  Literature and writing are consolation: “Je me console en écrivant.” She crosses over, like Nietzsche, but more strongly by undoing all opposites at a level not reached by the philosopher. She writes at a level where there is not even the possibility of an opposition. Her écrire-penser is a way of “writing-out”. “Theory” does not precede, it follows writing. Attemptng to reduce the space between life and writing, she strives for a writing where words do not come instead of life (Lispector writes, “The distance that separates feeling from words” [87]). More than Nietzsche who, at times, is dismissed for bombast, she emulates Lispector who writes lightly, as close as possible to life (See Lispector’s Agua viva). She writes from death (like that of her father and now her mother), to be sure, but ineffably toward life. Writing about small things—such as her mother’s shuffling about in the morning (Si près, Galilée, 2003; So close, Polity, 2009) gives her pleasure in a difficult, violent world. She writes, perhaps not “singing and dancing” as in 1975 but nonetheless with joy, with difficult joys (the expression is from Kierkegaard who now often serves as a reference more than Nietzsche). To write is to transform the reality of a colonial garden, a test garden, into a jardin d’essai, into an inner paradise, a jardin d’essais, d’esse, des sait, but also of décès

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