Why ‘Medusa’s laughter’ is still relevant today – DW – 5/6/2023

Helene Cixous’s appeal is clear: “Women must write about themselves.”

Even if some theoretical and post-structural references in “Medusa’s Laughter” may feel challenging to unfamiliar readers, this essay by the French feminist author is filled with impressive, powerful quotes.

It remains essential reading, especially for any young woman hoping to become an author: “Write, let no one stand in your way, let nothing stop you: no man; not the stupid capitalist machine, in which publishers are cunning relayers, submissive to commands handed down by an economy that works against us and against us; and no yourself.”

Pioneer of feminist studies in Europe

Born on June 5, 1937, in French Algeria to Jewish parents, Cixous is known for his experimental writing style, which spans a wide range of genres: theatre, literary theory and feminism, criticism. art reviews, autobiographies and poetic novels.

In 1974, Cixous founded Europe’s first center for women’s studies at the University of Paris VIII, a public and experimental university that she also co-founded as a direct response to the violence French student riots in May 1968.

The essayist, novelist and playwright has published more than 70 works and is considered a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her most influential article remains “The Laugh of the Medusa”, first published in French with the title “Le Rire de la Meduse” in 1975, and translated into English by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen. England in 1976.

Black and white portrait of Helene Cixous, a woman with short hair.
Helene Cixous in 1976Image: Sophie Bassouls/Leemage/IMAGO

About masturbation and writing

Although the literary scene has evolved considerably since the 1970s, with many female authors published and recognized in recent years, “The Laughter of Medusa” is an important reminder that over the years For millennia, our Western cultural heritage has been defined through men. near and far law.

Cixous argues that the demise of women has been determined by how we have been “colonized” by the “clitoris-centric” mindset. The author builds on ideas developed by French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). He is the one who coined the term “phallogocentrism”, which refers to the focus on masculine views through language.

While she rejects the patriarchal narratives imposed in our culture, Cixous’s essay is also filled with allusions to the attractive penis, such as: “The act of writing is equivalent to male masturbation (and so the woman writes herself cut out her paper penis).”

For feminist writers, there is a direct link between women’s emancipation of writing and their personal sexual liberation, since both writing and women’s masturbation have for too long been associated with shy; they can only be done in secret and accompanied by guilt.

Gemälde Das Haupt der Medusa Peter Paul Rubens
A symbol of female power in ancient Greece, the Medusa (described here by Rubens, circa 1612) became a feminist symbol Photo: Erich Lessing/akg-images/picture-alliance

Review the myth of Medusa

The essay deals with the Greek myth of Medusa, a monster with hair-dressing venomous snakes whose eyes turned people to stone.

For Cixous, stories depicting Medusa as male – a symbol of glamor and power – made her a symbol of the threat of castration. Medusa represents the fear of female desires.

Frankreich Helene Cixous
Helene Cixous has written more than 70 anthologies of philosophy, theory, poetry, plays, novels and hybrid works.Image: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

“My text is an update of Greek mythology. There is no better example to describe the position of women and the murderous battle that men against women. Medusa is one of the three Gorgons. [powerful, winged daemons], daughter of Phorkys and Keto. She is the only one of them. Men are afraid of her. When they look at her, they turn to stone,” Cixous told DW in December 2022, referring to her famous essay.

“But why does she have such great power over men? Because she’s seen men. The latter men don’t have time to see her,” she added.

Medusa and the liberation of women’s hair in Iran

“Men don’t want to see women and they cover their faces with veils to make them invisible, like ghosts. It’s terrible how much women cover their faces, even in everyday life,” Cixous said. said in a DW interview focusing on the women’s protests in Iran. “However, women are not objects, not dolls that cover their faces. They are radiant. They are beautiful. My Medusa has traveled the world. She is clearly in Iran now.”

Helene Cixous: Iranian regime ‘fears women’

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The feminist author was initially hesitant to speak on behalf of women fighting for their rights in Iran:

“Of course, I wonder if I can properly comment on this. After all, I’m not in Iran and I’m not risking my life like the people there. But she got the attention of the critics. Fellow feminists encouraged to do the same: “I Iranian friends told me, why don’t you do something? Talk! If you speak, the locals will hear. It’s important for me to say, I heard you.”

Meanwhile, Medusa has been widely adopted by feminists and the #MeToo movement as a symbol of rage and protector of women’s secrets.

Cixous also revisited his own text in a 2010 reprint of the French original with a new preface, exploring the idea of ​​Medusa as a strange body, which is another reason the essay remains widely cited to this day.

Cixous writes: “You just have to look directly at Medusa to see her. “And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and funny.”

DW Interview with Helene Cixous by Lisa Louis December 2022

Editor: Brenda Haas


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