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  • Creating a Dawn: Writing Through Antiquity in the Works of Hélene Cixous
  • Miriam Leonard*

From “Juifemme” to Achille . . .

Unlike the writings of Foucault and Derrida, whose engagement with the classical world has been the object of recent controversy, 1 the oeuvre of Hélène Cixous remains largely undiscovered within the field of classics. 2 Yet in her long-standing commitment to a rereading of the founding works of Western culture, Cixous can be seen to share in the French postwar dialogue with antiquity. Her earliest formulations of a theory of écriture féminine in the now canonic “Sorties” (Cixous 1975a) 3 weave in and out of Greek literary texts as she moves towards an explosive encounter with the [End Page 121] Oresteia and the other Electra plays in the section entitled “L’Aube du Phallocentrisme.” Her later shift to fictional writing encouraged a novel representational mode for such an encounter with the classical world. 4 But it is perhaps in her theatrical texts that the influence of Greek literary narratives has been most formative. Cixous’ early work on the Oedipus Tyrannus culminated in the opera Le Nom d’Oedipe (Cixous 1978). Cixous’ association with Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil in the eighties was consolidated in the performance of her translation of the Eumenides in the 1992–93 world-wide staging of Les Atrides. Arguably the most important production of the Oresteia in the last twenty years, 5 this staging rehearses the debates at the core of contemporary representations of the classical world.

That Cixous’ modernist writings should have turned to the texts of antiquity raises many questions about notions of classicism both within and beyond the boundaries of academe. Cixous may have been identified by the academic community with an aggressively French critical outlook; her writings, however, challenge the implicit underpinnings of such an assimilation. If the Anglo-Saxon academic tradition has fashioned itself partly in opposition to a perceived notion of Parisian intellectualism, Cixous will work to uncover the complex dynamic of national discourses concealed in this polarity. To what extent reading classical texts is implicated in these wider historical and national narratives is a question that Cixous will repeatedly raise. How and when does a discourse of antiquity become an expression of national stereotyping? To what historical use have the institutions of classicism been put in the service of national and political conflict? My first question, then, will revolve around the nationalist enterprise of scholarship. I will then go on to trace the way in which Cixous’ early theoretical texts construct a rhetorical identity in the persona of what she calls a “juifemme” to voice her exclusion from the narratives of classical reception. Anticipating the current debate about the subjectivity of scholarship, 6 Cixous will make the classical exemplum the mirror of her own biography (to the extent that she can even claim to be Achilles!). What strategies of elision between ancient and modern have to be employed in such an identification? Is classics merely being placed on the Procrustean bed of twentieth-century subjecthood? These are some of the questions that I shall be examining in a [End Page 122] reading of Cixous’ “Sorties.” But if classics proves good to do theory with, Cixous’ work proves to be a self-conscious theorisation of how we do classics. Cixous’ return to the Oresteia in her translation of the Eumenides, almost twenty years after the publication of “Sorties,” marks a shift in writerly outlook. By looking at her continued investigation of the power of classical literary narratives, I shall examine how this rereading expresses a novel personal politics. Tracing the development of Cixous’ writing, I hope to provide a model for the dynamic relationship between modern critical theory and the contemporary study of classics.

A Narrative of Nations

Wenn die Franzosen zu denken anfangen, sprechen sie deutsch.

Martin Heidegger

International relations at their best . . . As Heidegger shows us, the enterprise of scholarship is profoundly implicated in a discourse of national identity. Although, within the field of classics, Judith Hallett may have started to uncover an intricate national politics at the heart of academe, her preoccupation with a marked anti-American prejudice in departments on both...

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