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Being at a Loss: Death, Mourning, and Ethics in Cixous's Benjamin à Montaigne

From: Women in French Studies
Volume 20, 2012
pp. 47-58 | 10.1353/wfs.2012.0001



Jacques Derrida once claimed in an homage to his friend, Hélène Cixous, that "elle ne croit rien [de la mort]." Cixous, in turn, subscribed willingly to this view, saying "pour moi, la mort est passée...Elle était au commencement." However, her 2001 volume, Benjamin à Montaigne : Il ne faut pas le dire, edges more closely to Derrida's claim that "on meurt à la fin, trop vite." Writing about the dead—indeed, writing in anticipation of the deaths of others—raises ethical problems: what relationship to the other is appropriate? What way of speaking or writing honors rather than obscures, betrays, or exploits the other, once she can no longer speak for herself? Cixous's early essays set forth a (feminist) position that Shane Weller calls an "ethical openness" to alterity in all its differences. In this essay, I will examine the intersection of Cixous's concept of ethics with the Freudian account of mourning and melancholia. Looking at key scenes in Benjamin à Montaigne, we will see that Cixous's writer-narrator resists what Freud asserted to be the therapeutic process of mourning, that is, giving up one's dead and moving on. The narrator will opt instead for what R. Clifton Spargo describes as the ethical protest of melancholia, in which the melancholic refuses to give up its dead others. Nevertheless, as will become clear in the writer-narrator's experience, an ethics of alterity strictly adhered to does not come without certain costs.

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