- Political BetrayalHélène Cixous’s The Perjured City
Betrayal, be it feared or actualized, haunts Hélène Cixous’s writings in general: what is due as soon as it is said, or what must be said justly in order to be said with justice, becomes a “theme” as well as it is redoubled in the very mode of inscription of Cixous’s fictions. In Osnabrück, a fiction dedicated to Eve, Cixous’s mother, Eve reports being betrayed by her father, by her husband (both of whom died young), and by her children, all betraying what is due to life: “You have betrayed me, my mother thought, and not only did each of you betray me, but you still betray me, and you do not even know that you are betraying me” (Cixous 1999, 191). This diagnosis is then repeated by the fear of betraying Eve in the very narrative about the mother, all the more so since “one betrays by dint of being faithful” (218). Or yet again, in Manhattan, [End Page 67] the narrator admits risking being engulfed or threatened by a fault, a betrayal or an imposture that already affected the “I” as a somewhat blind participant in acts that were then partly decipherable or wholly unreadable, and that, interpreted more fluently in their narration, again risk enacting another betrayal, that of veracity. In that respect, not only does Cixous expose the lack of immunity of a narrative to what it tells; the narrative is never exempted either from the obligation of saying rightly or justly what may, however, be irremediably flawed, or contaminated. Moreover, this effect of contagion is precisely what must be addressed and faithfully rendered. Hence the figure of a resisting récit or narrative, once named “the Book that I will not write” (Cixous 2007, 41), resisting, among other things, the urge to erase the powerlessness to prevent betrayal. This entails no resignation to the inevitability of betrayal. The question is how to prevent its recurrence, in an act of writing that would know how not to repeat it.
La Ville parjure (translated by Bernadette Fort as The Perjured City), a play first performed in 1994 by the Théâtre du Soleil under the direction of Ariane Mnouchkine, pays particular heed to political betrayal, to failed promises of the city to its citizens. The staging of the play in Vincennes closely followed that of Greek tragedies, including Aeschylus’s Oresteia, whose Eumenides had been translated by Cixous for the theater’s production (see Dobson 2002, 105).1 Praised for her remarkable ability to write across different genres, Cixous has spoken of “a diffuse theatricality” in her texts (2004, 1). Not only is she a compelling playwright, but her fiction and essays unfold as “scenes of writing” (Dobson 2002, 10). As Jacques Derrida noted about her oeuvre, playwriting “gets staged in the novels, the Book has the right to speak and turns in turn into more than one character” (2006, 19). Several critics have analyzed the extent to which this theatrical writing is specifically engaged with the political.2 The request of the political is addressed in Cixous’s work as absolute urgency, interrupting, however, what is posited as equal urgency, be it the responsibility to the oeuvre, or other commitments, which might be termed mundane but are never secondary for Cixous. This double bind accounts for the lack of self-righteousness with which the irruption of the political is responded to by Cixous, but also for a rethinking of the boundaries of the political in such texts as To Live the Orange, as well as in the rest of her oeuvre. [End Page 68] Cixous’s address of the political is consistently orientated toward what she calls “the ethical question of politics, or of responsibility” (Cixous and Calle-Gruber 1997, 6). In The Perjured City, Cixous was responding to the scandal of supplying HIV-tainted blood to patients, a decision that provoked the deaths of thousands, many of them hemophiliacs. The scandal had involved doctors, administrators, and ministers in the French government in the mid-1980s, and its effects were still unfolding...