I’ve been wanting to read The Laugh of the Medusa by Helene Cixous for years, and today I finally sat down and read it all at once. It did not disappoint.
The 20-page essay not just about female writing, but about female being, our way of inhabiting the world.
Cixous writes that we have been kept from living fully by the expectations placed on us. Phallocentrism (male privilege) dictates that we be chaste, that we suppress our desires not only for sex but for life.
This feeling of exclusion and shame is nothing new to me, and probably not new to so many other women.
“And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! … Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naivete, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentrism, hasn’t been ashamed of her strength?”
I didn’t repaint my half of the world, I never made it mine, I never claimed my own territory because I was afraid to speak.
Cixous writes that men have made for women an antinarcissism. That rings so true. For many years, I struggled to even have a sense of self separate from others, to be my own person. It seemed so arrogant to me that I could have needs, and even worse, that they might be fulfilled.
“Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insiduously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs. They have made for women an antinarcissism! A narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven’t got! They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove.”
Cixous encourages us to write our bodies. To write our desires, to put into words our love of life and of the world. Why write? Because:
“…writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.”
She says that the future woman will be an insurgent that smashes the boundaries of the past.
The invention of a new insurgent, a woman who creates ruptures and transformations in her history on two levels:
- Individually. “Write your self. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth.” “…she has always occupied the place reserved for the guilty…” The phallocentric society desires us to be neither or both at once. Woman as an impossibility.
- Historically. History “has always been based on her suppression.” “It is time for women to start scoring their feats in written and oral language.”
Cixous does not define what feminine writing will look like.
“It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded–which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”
In her eyes, there is no need for definition. The male is the lord of the actual, while woman rules the world of possibility. Man is what is, woman what we can only dream that will be.
“You have only to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
Woman is a whole, she does not fear decapitation or castration. She does not fear losing her titles, because she has her body and her life.
“Here, buy my glasses and you’ll see the Truth-Me-Myself tell you everything you should know. … You see? No? Wait, you’ll have everything explained to you, and you’ll know at last which sort of neurosis you’re related to. Hold still, we’re going to do your portrait, so that you can begin looking like it right away.”
This is how the patriarchy perpetuates itself. By not writing, we are victims of appropriation. We must not be silent, we must use language to create ourselves. How many times have I been told who I am by other people? It’s true, they want to put you in a box, define you so you are no longer dangerous to them. If we let others speak for us, we will never own ourselves.