The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Jouissance: Journeys Beyond the Bed with Hélène Cixous

Cecily Davey


This article will propose that the symbol of the bed has played a central role in the writing of Hélène Cixous, from her earliest works onwards. Over the course of her continually evolving oeuvre, however, the associations which this object carries seem to vary considerably. Each of the texts which I will discuss in this article presents a different view of what the bed can be seen to symbolise. Whereas her early works link the bed with sleep, silence, passivity, and death; her later writing focuses on the bed as a scene of rebirth. This object becomes closely connected with dreaming in Cixous’ writing, which represents for her an act of liberation, exploration, and discovery. As a symbol of the world of dreams, the bed is thus transformed into a place where the desires, voices, and creative forces of the unconscious can be expressed.

The diverse symbolism of the bed in Cixous’ work raises several questions. How does this transition from death to rebirth, from repression to liberation, from silence to self-expression take place? Why does this transition happen? Furthermore, what does this suggest about the larger conceptual evolution that has taken place within her work over the years? It is the aim of this article to answer these questions by discussing a selection of texts which depict the bed in contrasting ways, such as her celebrated essay ‘Sorties,’ ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ ‘Coming to Writing,’ and ‘The School of Dreams.’ Despite the fact that this object reappears throughout these texts, its presence has been little discussed if not entirely overlooked by most existing scholarship on Cixous.1 By reflecting more closely on her representation of this object, I will argue that the ambivalent symbolism of the bed may be seen to offer valuable insights into the wider evolution of Cixous’ oeuvre.  

In ‘Sorties’ – an essay which caused a storm in the world of French literary theory and revolutionised the study of women’s writing – Cixous launches a direct attack on the myths of femininity which have pervaded western culture. Within the narrative traditions that serve as the foundations for this culture, Cixous argues that ‘woman is always associated with passivity.’2 ‘Either a woman is passive or she does not exist,’ she continues (p. 64). ‘What is left of her is unthinkable, unthought’ (p. 64). Integral to her critique of such narratives are the fairy tales that frequently represent women as occupying bed-ridden positions. The horizontality of women in these tales is fundamentally linked, Cixous suggests, to the myth which depicts femininity as the epitome of passivity, silence, and helplessness.

A prime example is the tale of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ in which a woman falls under a spell that puts her to sleep for a thousand years and can only be broken by the kiss of a prince. Such a fairy tale exemplifies a stereotypically phallocentric representation of male desire which expresses itself through the power to arouse and awaken. The narrative of this tale places the man in an active position which grants him the ability to exercise this power. In order for him to do this successfully, however, the only position which the woman can occupy in the narrative is one of passivity in which she must obediently reflect, follow, and fulfil the call of male desire. Her awakening does not realise her existence as a woman in her own right, but rather as the universal phantasy of a woman whose existence is only validated by her ability to remain desirable. This concept of feminine desirability is one which depends on her not having the power to assert her own desire. As Cixous describes: ‘She sleeps, she is intact, eternal, absolutely powerless’ (p. 66). Female desire is not allowed to play an active role nor even to be expressed openly. The woman’s allure – and thus her value – depends on her remaining passive, silent, and horizontal, Cixous argues.

The predicament of the woman who must supress her own desire in order to remain desirable is not confined to the fairy tales of past societies. The myth of feminine desirability which such tales re-inscribe may be seen as having a continuing influence on the way in which femininity is conceptualised in contemporary culture. In response to the fate of the female protagonist in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and also ‘Snow White,’ Cixous insists that:

One cannot say of the following history “it’s just a story.” It’s a tale still true today. Most women who have awakened remember having slept, having been put to sleep. Once upon a time … once … and once again. Beauties slept in their woods, waiting for princes to come and wake them up. In their beds, in their glass coffins, in their childhood forests like dead women. Beautiful, but passive; hence desirable: all mystery emanates from them (p. 66).

What Cixous calls for in ‘Sorties’ is an awakening to the detrimental effects of these narratives, for women as well as for men. To continue to play along with the roles of princess and prince confines the sexes within a repressive system in which masculine desire can only be expressed by asserting itself over the feminine. If we overlook the pervasive influence of such fairy tales within our literary and cultural history, this essay warns, we run the risk of letting their seductive but dangerous fantasies turn into an inescapable reality.3

The message which ‘Sorties’ seems to convey is that we – and women in particular – should “Beware of the Bed”. As a symbolic object, the bed bears a special significance within Cixous’ argument, as it is the journey ‘from bed to bed’ that maps the ‘history’ of women’s lives throughout the centuries of western civilisation (p. 66). ‘Bride bed, child bed, bed of death,’ Cixous states, ‘thus woman’s trajectory is traced as she inscribes herself from bed to bed’ (p. 66). This ‘trajectory’ provides a crucial example of Cixous’ use of the bed as a symbol of the repression of women (p. 66). Cixous’ depiction of their bed-ridden predicament lifts the lid of a Pandora’s Box full of potentially incendiary questions. Is this predicament the result of the tyranny of man’s desire? Or of woman’s inability to challenge this tyranny? Is it a result of man’s manipulation of the myth of femininity? Or of woman’s complicity with this myth? ‘Sorties’ is an essay which delights in confronting such difficult issues directly, without the slightest hint of shying away from provocative – or even invective – rhetorical tactics.  Though this essay leaves several of the questions it raises unresolved, Cixous’ impassioned tour de force of feminist polemic does provide a powerfully unequivocal point of view on what women must do to escape a life of confinement to the bedroom. In order to write, to live, and to learn how to love herself, woman must wake up, rise up, and leave her bed behind.

In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ Cixous continues her critique of the repression of the feminine in literature and culture from a slightly different yet no less incisive perspective. As a condensed version of ‘Sorties,’ this essay interrogates the way in which we use language as a symbolic system of opposites that insists on the division of the sexes. From the oppositional couple of man/woman stems a countless number of other binary dichotomies: vertical/horizontal, active/passive, day/night, sun/moon, awake/asleep, light/dark etc. The point that Cixous is trying to make here is that the feminine has traditionally been associated with the latter half of these dichotomies, in other words, the inferior side. 

In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ Cixous takes particular issue with the association of femininity with darkness and focuses on deconstructing the conceptual connection between the two. The association of what is woman – and more specifically what is understood to be her sexuality – with what is dark is seen as problematic by Cixous for several reasons. Whilst this association allows for a certain kind of mystique which may be considered by some to be an asset, it also has serious consequences for the way in which the sexuality of woman can be inscribed in language. Cixous’ deconstruction of the supposed darkness of femininity considers its origins in the classical myth of the Medusa, which in turn had a profound influence on Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of female sexuality.4 The image of the Medusa – lurking in the shadows with her face obscured by a swarming mass of phallic-like snakes for hair – represents for Freud the monstrous mystery of the female sex. The shadows in which this monster dwells are described by Freud as the ‘dark continent’ of female sexuality; an unexplorable realm which his illuminating methods of psychoanalysis found impossible to fully penetrate.5

Despite the fact that Freud admitted defeat in his attempts to understand the inner secrets of the female sexual psyche, he did nevertheless succeed in exposing the origins of the conceptual association between femininity and darkness which had endured for centuries and remained deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of society. It is this association, argues Cixous, that is responsible for ‘the repression that has kept [women] in the “dark” – that dark which people have been trying to make [women] accept as their attribute.’6 The consequence of this association which we see re-inscribed in Freudian psychoanalytic discourse is that women are led to believe that they should regard their sexuality with a sense of fear.

As Cixous describes: ‘Your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous. You can’t see anything in the dark, you’re afraid. Don’t move, you might fall. Most of all: don’t go into the forest. And so we have internalized this horror of the dark’ (p. 2041).

The echo of the forbidden forests of fairy tales within Cixous’ words here also resonates with the fear of a wild and sinister landscape that lies outside the laws of civilised society. Freud’s theory of female sexuality suggests that this landscape is one which dwells within the dark recesses of every woman, and that this darkness conceals not only what is undesirable but also monstrous, dangerous, and deadly. The ‘phantasm of woman as a “dark continent”’ has effectively obscured any attempt to allow female sexuality to be represented in a different light, claims Cixous (p. 2041). Women have been taught to ‘censor’ whatever desires inexplicably escape from the impenetrable depths of their unconscious (p. 2043). The central impetus of Cixous’ argument in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ is therefore to prove conversely that the “dark continent” which women have come to represent is‘neither dark nor unexplorable’ (Cixous’ italics): ‘It is still unexplored only because we’ve been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable’ (pp. 2041, 2048).

What consequences does this argument therefore have for the symbolism of the bed within Cixous’ work? ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ suggests that although the bed may at first seem to represent a symbol of woman’s repression, the relationship between femininity, sexuality, and the unconscious calls for further exploration. May the bed be seen instead as a place where such an exploration could take place? Could the bed in fact come to represent the playground for the creative voices of the unconscious, rather than the scene of their silencing? Both of these suggestions are ones which arise from the essay’s discussion of the darkness that seems to surround the issue of the female sexuality. Rather than calling for women to leave their beds behind, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ contrastingly sends a message that suggests it is essential for us to reconsider what takes place within our beds at night in order to uncover what lies behind the veil of the sleeping mind. In this essay, Cixous represents the unconscious as a ‘limitless country’ which we can only access by journeying into the darkness that we have been forbidden to enter (p. 2043).  As the second half of this article aims to demonstrate, the bed has a vital role to play within the journey of discovery that Cixous encourages her readers to take.

In ‘Coming to Writing,’ Cixous explains why the bed must be the starting point for this journey. The essay exemplifies the turn in Cixous’ perspective from her focus on the negative associations of sleeping towards an interest in the positive associations of dreaming. Whereas her earlier essays tended to link sleeping with death, Cixous now starts to consider the power of dreaming as a mode of rebirth. In contrast to ‘Sorties’ in which she calls for women to wake up to the dangers of sleeping through their lives in silence, Cixous now encourages women to sleep in order to dream, as it is only through dreaming that the silenced desires of the unconscious can be released. As contradictory as this may seem, ‘Coming to Writing’ provides a cogent argument for the importance of dreams as a significant source of inspiration for Cixous as a writer of what she calls écriture féminine; a style of expression which brings the desires, sensations, and rhythms of the body into language. In this essay she describes écriture féminine through the acts of ‘writing, dreaming, delivering; being my own daughter of every day.’7

By practicing these ‘acts of birth every day,’ Cixous suggests that it is possible for us to gain access to an endless wellspring of creativity within our own bodies (p. 6). It is significant to note here that the essay’s original French title – ‘La venue à l'écriture’ – can also be translated as ‘Her Birth in Writing.’8

The journeys which we make when dreaming are ones which lead us towards the route to rebirth, a notion which Cixous conceptualises in ‘Coming to Writing’ as the most profound experience of awakening. This awakening involves the liberation of the libidinal forces of the unconscious, enabling our bodily desires to be given voice to in language. Dreaming may therefore be seen as a creative practice of particular relevance to women, whose sexual desires – as Cixous argues in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ – have been subject to repression, forbidden expression, and kept shrouded in darkness. As a highly transgressive activity, Cixous suggests that dreaming will allow woman to awaken her innermost desires, and by giving expression to them, she will revolutionise the way in which her body is represented within the symbolic order of language. As Cixous describes in ‘Coming to Writing’:

from dream to dream you wake up more and more conscious, more and more woman. The more you let yourself dream, the more you let yourself be worked through, the more you let yourself be disturbed, pursued, threatened, loved, the more you write, the more you escape the censor, the more the woman in you is affirmed, discovered, and invented (p. 55).

The idea of dreaming as a way of escaping censorship is one which also resonates with ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ in which Cixous proposes that the constraints of a phallocentric society have prevented woman’s writing by censoring her body, her breath, and thus her voice as well. Once women have learned how to harness the power of dreams, however, their unconscious will become an irrepressible source of inspiration from which écriture féminine will freely flow.

Cixous also returns to the imagery of the forest in ‘Coming to Writing,’ which appears in her earlier work as a conflation of the notions of darkness, danger, and monstrosity. In this essay, however, Cixous depicts the forest as a magical realm of travel and discovery. She urges women to explore the forests they have been forbidden from entering by participating in the exploratory practice of dreaming. Cixous extols the unique ability that dreams have to transport us beyond boundaries, into new territories, and thus deeper into ourselves. The process of self-exploration, Cixous claims, will enable women to learn to listen to their inner voices, impulses, and desires. This process is portrayed by Cixous as one which involves developing a relationship with one’s dreams as one would with a lover. She describes her relationship with her own dreams in the most intimate and sensual terms, suggesting an exuberant lack of inhibition in her nightly explorations:

They lead you into their gardens, they invite you into their forests, they make you explore their regions, they inaugurate their continents. Close your eyes and love them: you are at home in their lands, they visit you and you visit them, their sexes lavish their secrets on you. What you didn’t know they teach you, and you teach them what you learn from them. If you love them, each woman adds herself to you, and you become morewoman [sic] (p. 55).

As this passage suggests, the joys of travelling are as central to Cixous’ practice of dreaming as they are also to her practice of writing. The pleasure involved in all three indissociable acts is encapsulated by Cixous in the chiasmatic aphorism for which ‘Coming to Writing’ is famed: ‘Write, dream, enjoy, be dreamed, enjoyed, written’ (p. 56). This essay demonstrates that writing for Cixous starts with embarking on a journey; a journey which begins in the bed, travels through the body, and voyages on into the infinite expanses of the landscape of the unconscious that lie within. ‘Worldwide my unconscious, worldwide my body,’ she writes (p. 56). The bed can thus be seen to act as the gateway to ‘the voyage, the voyager’ and ‘the body of travel’ (p. 56). Does this suggest that the bed as a symbolic object now occupies a new position of significance within Cixous’ work? If so, how does Cixous continue to use the image of the bed to illustrate the creative processes involved in her writing? More importantly, what does her changing representation of this symbolic object say about the shifting concerns of her work from ‘Sorties’ onwards?

Before attempting to answer these questions, I would like to consider one final text which is also notable for its use of the image of the bed. ‘The School of Dreams’ in Cixous’ collection Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing elaborates in many ways her earlier attempts to liberate the creative forces of the unconscious. Dreaming – as a way of crossing boundaries and escaping constraints – continues to play a central role in her effort to reconceptualise creativity, sexuality, and the representation of the body in writing. Although ‘The School of Dreams’ is not as explicitly concerned with the practice of écriture féminine as the three essays discussed previously, it does nevertheless continue to reflect on why Cixous’ nocturnal adventures remain an important source of inspiration in her work. ‘Dreams teach us’; she states here, ‘They teach us how to write.’9 In this collection she depicts her ‘ladder of writing’ as having three rungs which one descends rather than ascends, with each rung representing a different aspect of the creative process. ‘The first moment in writing is the School of the Dead,’ ‘the second moment of writing is the School of Dreams,’ and the third moment ‘is the School of Roots.’10 This description of her creative process suggests that dreams are a vital element in Cixous’ work because they provide the transitional middle step which allows her to travel from the first to the last rung on the ‘ladder of writing.’

‘The School of Dreams’ is an essay which carries a particular significance in relation to the discussion of the symbolism of the bed because it illustrates how this object continues to acquire new meanings within Cixous’ work. She suggests in this text that although her nocturnal travels begin in the bed, dreaming must also involve journeying below and beyond it. In the section of the essay entitled ‘The School of Dreams is Located Under the Bed,’ Cixous explains why this is necessary by drawing once more on the recurring motifs of fairy tales and forests (p. 63). However, unlike ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Snow White,’ the tale which Cixous focuses on here provides a positive example of woman’s self-expression rather than a negative example of her repression. Known as ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ or ‘The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes,’ Cixous recounts the basic narrative characteristics of this story:

I have a faint recollection from an apparently naïve Grimm’s Tale of a king whose daughters were ruining him. He kept them carefully locked in, as is proper, and didn’t know why each day they needed to change their shoes. The daughters mysteriously wore out their shoes. Up until the day the king planted a spy to throw light on this matter. At nightfall the daughters pulled the bed aside, lifted up the trap door, climbed down the ladder beneath the palace, and went out into the forest and danced all night (pp. 63-64).

Along with the imagery of the bed, the forest, and the darkness of the night, this tale includes several other elements which are of interest to Cixous; walking, dancing, travelling, and taking pleasure in the transgressive act of expressing bodily desire.  The story of the princesses who are not only unafraid to enter the forest at night but also revel in the delight of doing what is forbidden represents ‘the perfect metaphor for the School of Dreams’ according to Cixous (p. 64).  This is because it combines all the elements that are necessary for journeying into the unconscious: ‘Walking, dancing, pleasure,’ and in particular ‘sexual pleasure’ – or to use the French term that encapsulates so poetically the essence of Cixous’ argument – ‘jouissance’ (p. 64). The parallels between this fairy tale and Cixous’ creative process are clear. As she states in ‘The School of Dreams,’ both writing and dreaming involve ‘traversing the forest, journeying through the world’ (p. 64). One must travel into the darkness ‘using all available means of transport,’ including one’s ‘own body’ (p. 64).

Yet what does the bed signify in this parable for the pursuit of bodily pleasure? What are the symbolic connotations of the princesses’ displacement of the bed? From calling for the need for women to be awoken from their silent slumbers to suggesting that they should instead be encouraged to delve deeper into the nocturnal world of their dreams, Cixous seems to be proposing yet another message in this essay. Rather than assuming that dreaming is an act which takes place exclusively within the bed, Cixous implies that in order to travel towards the depths of the unconscious one must descend below the bed as well. The story of the princesses who escape through the trap door in their bedroom floor serves to illustrate this notion of descent as a journey towards enlightenment which must take place within the darkness of the night. Cixous describes this journey most lucidly in the passage below:

In order to go to the School of Dreams, something must be displaced, starting with the bed […] One must go on foot, with the body, one has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure? One must walk as far as the night. One’s own night. Walking through the self towards the dark (p. 65).

As this passage demonstrates, what began as an inward journey of self-discovery has now turned into a journey that departs from the self and travels beyond it. What began as a cry for her readers to rise up from the bed has now turned into a call for them to descend below it. How is it possible to make sense of such a significant shift in Cixous’ use of the image of this object within her work?

I would propose that the ambivalent symbolism of the bed may ultimately be understood as an indication of Cixous’ change in focus from specific issues relating to the repression of female sexuality towards more universal questions about the expression of the body in the writing process. There is also a marked difference in the tone of her early argumentative texts, as exemplified most powerfully by ‘Sorties’ and ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ when compared to the more reflective and discursive style of Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Furthermore, it is significant to note that the ‘The School of Dreams,’ unlike the first three essays analysed in this article, does not assume that the majority of its readers will be women. Dreams are, after all, a phenomenon which occurs in the beds of both men and women alike. Indeed, it is whilst dreaming that we encounter the rare opportunity to experiment with the bodies, sexualities, and identities that define our existence in our waking lives. Perhaps the most persuasive way to account for the differing representations of the bed in Cixous’ writing would therefore be to see this symbolic object as the locus of an incessant process of experimentation in which our understanding of sexuality, creativity, and the act of writing itself is continually being challenged.

References / Notes

1 One notable study of the bed in Cixous’ writing does exist, yet it focuses on her fictional work The Third Body rather than on her essays. See: Marilyn Manners, ‘The Vagaries of Flight in Hélène Cixous’ Le Troisième Coprs,’ French Forum, 23.1 (1998), 101-14.

2 Hélène Cixous, ‘Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays,’ in The Newly Born Woman, trans. by Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 64.

3 For a discussion of myth and fairy tale in Cixous’ fictions as well as in her essays see: Susan Sellers, Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).

4 Sigmund Freud, ‘Medusa’s Head,’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, 24 vols. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1955), XXI (1940), pp. 273-74.

5 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Question of Lay Analysis,’ in The Standard Edition, XX (1926), p. 212. A fuller analysis of the figure of Medusa within feminist critiques of psychoanalysis can be found in: Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard, eds., Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

6 Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ in The Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch and others, trans. by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen  (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 2040.

7 Hélène Cixous, ‘Coming to Writing,’ in Coming to Writing and Other Essays, ed. by Deborah Jenson, trans. by Sarah Cornell and others (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 6.

8 Ian Blyth with Susan Sellers, Hélène Cixous: Live Theory (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 12.

9 Hélène Cixous, ‘The School of Dreams,’ in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, trans. by Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 79.

10 Hélène Cixous, ‘The School of the Dead,’ in Three Steps, p. 7.

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