Peaking Behind the Curtains of Adieux

By Benjamin CrockettAugust 13, 2015

Tomb(e) by Hélène Cixous

“WE SHOULD WRITE as we dream,” Hélène Cixous famously penned. Her quote echoes throughout Tomb(e), her “love-text” about a man she immortalizes in the novel. Upon putting the book down, one feels as if having just awoken, disoriented, and questioning — whether in the bed of desire, death, or rebirth. Her poetic text covers the reader in an interwoven tapestry of dreams, memory, fiction, and recombining motifs that force him/her “to become the memory of the text as it retells itself.” It is a text that at its “corporeal roots” is deeply haunted by the presence of the body. For Cixous, the “corporeal roots” of language serve as the tools for burroughing into the foundation of thinking. Writing is the “quest(ioning)” of thinking.  Spending time in Tomb(e) is like “living in two countries.” (Cixous has called dreaming taking off into a new undiscovered country. She famously spent an evening in one of these dreams with German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote the celebrated phrase, "for questioning is the piety of thought." Heidegger, speaking on Friedrich Nietzsche, said, “All great thinkers think the same. Yet this ‘same’ is so essential and so rich that no single thinker exhausts it.” This could be said of Cixous and the themes in this book.) In this novel, she attempts to separate love from death in the inter-looping matrix of the waking and dream state, chasing love and death like the famous ouroboros Carl Jung popularized.

Tomb(e) tells the story of one who “can boast having seen in reality the head of the god he has dreamt of,” but at the same time having seen “[t]he curtain raised one minute too early.” The god, Dioniris, the revenant, is the only named character of the novel and commands Cixous to “Write!” With Tomb(e), Cixous, the ever “faithful secretary,” gives us “a faint emanation of the book of books” so powerful that “the desire of Love startle[s] the Tomb(e) once again, splits it and overturns it and the Dream in itself comes out.”

Cixous’s first “tomb” dates back to the ’60s: “In 1968/69, I wanted to die, that is to say, stop living, being killed, but it was blocked on all sides. I began dreaming of writing a Tomb(e) for myself.” She wrote that tomb, first published in 1973, and then went on to publish over 70 works, including novels, plays, and collections of critical essays, easily transitioning from literary theory to feminism and philosophy. Now, more than 40 years later, this previously out of print work is seeing the light of day with a new prologue by Cixous. Laurent Milesi guides us with a translation into what many would say is an otherwise “untranslatable” work.


Hélène Cixous was born on June 5, 1937, in Oran, Algeria, a city “full of neighborhoods, of peoples, of languages.” Her father, Georges Cixous, was a physician and French colonialist who wrote his thesis on tuberculosis and died from it when Hélène was just 11. Cixous writes, “All the tombs of my life were born from the Tomb of my father.” Her mother, Eve, a refugee from Nazi Germany, became a midwife to support the family. Cixous’s first language was German. “My own writing was born in Algeria out of a lost country of the dead father and the foreign mother.” An Algerian exile like her contemporary, Jacques Derrida, she came to prominence after publishing a nearly 800 page doctoral thesis on another exile, James Joyce: L’Exil de James Joyce ou l’art du remplacement (The Exile of James Joyce, 1968). It was the largest academic book on Joyce to appear in France at the time. In it, she explored the relationship between Joyce’s life and his art, tracing his early developments as a marginalized Irishman in a world dominated by England, to his dream of producing “a written work which is to escape all the laws and metamorphoses which history imposes upon reality and to build itself up as a universe of its own, obeying its own linguistic laws.”

Exile and marginalization permeate Cixous’s writing as she, like Joyce, explores those themes with a boldly experimental style, utilizing scholarship, literary theory, memoir, and linguistic play, along with the tropes of fiction. She later wrote Dedans (Inside), a semi-autobiographical work centered on the death of her father that unites many of these themes. She befriended Derrida, a fellow Jewish-Algerian exile from Algeria, through her investigation of Joyce. In Derrida, Cixous found a kindred soul. Following their first meeting in 1963, the two maintained a long friendship and continuous dialogue on such topics as displacement, language, and life. This continued until Derrida’s death in 2004. She describes their first rencontre

From the very first meeting, from the first discussion, which was of a literary and philosophical nature and took place in 1963 in Café Balzar, the threads of our lives became intertwined — and it remained so forever. It felt like a kind of miracle. When I met him it was as though I was being reborn. And when I look back now and observe the tracks that we set, I’m astonished. Right back at the time when we conducted our first dialogues, we said fundamental things to each other — and without realizing it. But nothing has changed with respect to the perception of him as my literary, philosophical and emotional other.

They famously co-authored Voiles (Veils) in 1998, a history of sexual difference combining loosely autobiographical texts “suspended between two homonyms: la voile (sail) and le voile (veil).” (In Tomb(e) we get to explore her early development of these ideas as she mines the terrain behind both “voiles,” using them as recurring motifs that envelope the text in layered folds of sails and veils, forcing the deeper exploration of the closely sounding verbs savoir (to know) and voir (to see).) Near the beginning of his book, H.C. for Life, That Is to Say… Derrida observed that because “Hélène Cixous took sides ‘for life,’” battling la mort (Death is a feminine gender in French and therefore, unlike in English, symbolized as a woman), and came out on top, she distinguished herself from many other philosophers by celebrating la vie (life) rather than la mort.

Cixous is best known in the US for her celebration of écriture féminine, a feminine mode of writing which she first coined in her essay Le rire de la Méduse (The Laugh of the Medusa). The concept behind écriture feminine is that it is “[i]mpossible de définir une pratique féminine de l’écriture” (It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing). Language in Cixous’s mind plays an active role in oppressing women. There is something essential that women can access through the “phonetic inscription of the body” that will allow them to overcome Western logocentrism. “Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” Cixous offers a way of writing that will allow women to “transform their history, to seize the occasion to speak.” She declares, “[n]early the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason […] it has been one with the phallocentric tradition.”  

With this essay, Cixous empowers those excluded and marginalized while offering tools to give voice to those struggling to find their identity. 

A feminist and teacher, Cixous was chargé de mission to found the experimental Université de Paris VIII in the wake of the ’68 student riots that brought France to a halt and led Charles de Gaulle to flee the country for a few hours. Paris VIII, originally known as Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes, was created to serve as an alternative to the traditional French academic environment. Famous faculty were assembled, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Jacques Lacan among them. While still at Paris VIII, Cixous founded the Centre de Recherches en Etudes Féminines (Center for Women’s and Gender Studies) in 1974, the first department of its kind in Europe.

Cixous is also a playwright for le Théâtre du Soleil, the Parisian avant-garde theater company that just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Le Soleil creates theatrical works, or “collective creations,” as a multi-national troupe of more than 75 people, all living together and sharing an egalitarian wage. This is where I was first introduced to Cixous, through her collaborations with director Arianne Mnouchkine and Michel Foucault. Foucault and Cixous were both teaching at Paris VIII in Vincennes where le Soleil is located. For theater-goers, it has become a ritual to take the Metro and make the long pilgrimage to la Cartoucherie (a former munitions factory that has been transformed into an enormous, immersive theatrical space) in le Bois (the woods) de Vincennes. At the time, Cixous and Foucault were organizing a group to collect information on prisons. They met Mnouchkine and when Cixous saw le Soleil’s legendary devised work 1789 — basically the French Revolution from the people’s point of view, capturing the essence of the social and cultural unrest sweeping France in the ’60s and the événements of 1968 — they hastily agreed to collaborate and put on theatrical performances in front of prisons. These were regularly stopped by the police.

Late in 1985, Mnouchkine asked Cixous to write a play for le Soleil, and Cixous subsequently became the first company playwright. Previously le Soleil had mostly performed devised pieces like La cuisine (The Kitchen), Les Clowns (The Clowns), and 1789 and 1793 in which they brought Revolutionary France to life. They had also worked on a trilogy of Shakespearean plays (Richard II (1981), Twelfth Night (1982), and Henry IV (1984)) inspired by the traditions of physical theater found in Kabuki and Kathakali techniques, merging the splendors of Oriental and Shakespearean staging. But Cixous’s arrival ushered in a new era of collaboration for le Soleil, embarking on subsequent historical productions such as L’histoire terrible mais inachevé de Norodom Sihanouk, le roi du Cambodge (1985), in which she brought the history of Cambodia to life, as well as Ghandi’s India in L’Indiade ou L’Inde de Leurs Rêves (1987), fusing the great Shakespearean traditions with the tragedies of the modern world. She most recently penned Les Naufrages du Fol Espoir (Aurores) (2010), which is loosely based on Jules Verne’s posthumously published novel by the same title. 

Cixous’s involvement with Mnouchkine and her influence as the company playwright and dramaturge has shifted le Théâtre du Soleil’s work and navigated the theater company towards a more historical and political form, leading them to mine what she simply calls the “scene of history.” Many scholars have called le Soleil a showcase of feminist art, citing that it is piloted by a woman director and playwright who utilizes the cyclical, nonlinear, noncommercial, and subversive nature of theater as a counterpoint to the more traditional theatrical institutions dominating France. Cixous and Mnouchkin have often stated that le Soleil offers a theater of dreams to the public, that they are working in a utopian laboratory that uses the theater as a model of the world. This microcosm of society offers to show the public what is possible with the help of the great poets and writers who bring this idea literally “to life” with the collision of bodies, text, and audience.

Cixous makes plenty of theatrical references throughout Tomb(e), from illusions to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth to meta-references of peeping behind the curtain of death. Rumor has it that she is currently hard at work on her next collaboration with le Soleil and that we will be seeing a new oeuvre in the fall.


Cixous wrote Tomb(e) when she was 33 years old, declaring that it “is [at] about the age of thirty-three that an ‘author’ makes up his mind to look Tombe in the face.” She had moved to France, already having published her first novel Le Prénom de Dieu (God’s First Name) in 1967, “the book from before all my books” which Derrida called an ulo (unidentified literary object), and been awarded the prestigious Prix Médicis for her second book of fiction, Dedans

With Tomb(e), Cixous pierces into the nature of love and jealousy — an oeuvre bound by the desire for a love that can never be, and yet, at the same time, looks upon the memory of a love that has been. 

If Desire must needs invent detachment which keeps the Desired one alive I will invent it once more and now, the one whom I hold here, I will let go of him, what I grasp I lose and what I lose-at either extremity of time I keep non-mortally.

Her illuminating prologue in the new edition (interesting to note that René de Ceccatty from Seuil offers to republish this book. René means rebirth and seuil means threshold in French) situates Tomb(e) in context with her later works, and brings the reader back to la mort of her father. The prologue’s title, “Memories of Tomb(e),” is a pun on François-René Châteaubriand’s memories (Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe). The form Tomb(e) in the title with the bracketed “e” indicates that this tomb needs to be heard as the French imperative for “to fall” (French verb: tomber). For example, in her prologue, Cixous notes that “the tomb of my father, that is to say, my father fallen to his grave and raised (tombé et relevé).” Her father’s early death, Cixous’s first encounter with la mort, haunted her and can be seen in much of her early prose. “I would be, if I still wanted to love him, obliged to hate him.” In Tomb(e), she describes the process of releasing that anguish and turning it into text:

When I was writing Tombe in 1970 I wanted to raise a tomb (relever une tombe), and recover from (relever de) a poisonous death. I wanted to disinter a secret and I interred (enfouissais) it beneath a text […] the Tomb of Tombs again, my father’s grave, which is also the grave and cradle of Tombs which are the secret filled chests of my books.

The tomb which the main character expects is a wandering tomb (Phantom of Tomb(e)). “Dioniris is born returning like a revenant. He returns from before Tombe and from after Tombe, a phantom.” Dioniris, Adonis’s double, is a god: part Dionysus — the Greek god of wine, who is seen as the dying and returning god coming back each year with the harvest — and part Osiris — the Egyptian god of death and resurrection. (Cixous compares Tomb(e) to a “new edition of Venus and Adonis” in the prologue.) Cixous writes, “I discover the germ of Gold for Tombe. In 1970, the boy who plays in me on the ruins creates, dies, resurrects; I call him Dioniris.” 

Tomb(e) is divided into four sections. The first is the shortest and begins after the fact of much of the action in the book. Cixous writes that Tomb(e) is “a sort of metalepsis […] The after-book comes before the book. The Tombe metalepsis is a manipulation on the play before-after. All this story is visibly affected by what is called the aftereffect [après-coup].” The section begins with the word “impassive,” which is, in fact, a metaphor for the tone of the rest of the section: removed, yet poetic storytelling. The section is further divided into numbered parts that end at 33 (Cixous was 33 when she wrote this). Here we discover Dioniris in a dream and are introduced to many of the themes in the book: the Sex of Gold, the Lovely Mint, Peruvia, and the bed. “The Sex of Gold” illustrates a type of thermometer that is “used to measure the level of immortality in the lovers’ desire” and can only be found by people with no eyes. It rises when a sperm has lost its way. “The Lovely Mint” is best understood through its many homonyms: la menthe in French: mint; l’amante: the (female) lover hence “the lovely mint”; and lamente: laments, hence “pine for love.”

Cixous stages Tomb(e) in “Peruvia,” “whose capital Pergamum is moved by a thousand sails,” as a substitute for the United States because she has likened her coming to America to “Ulysses at the Sirens.” Cixous states “this is why this story happens in Peruvia. Literature is such an Eldorado [Pérou], is it not?” “The bed” is also a key setting in the story — a theme throughout all of Cixous’s work. It is a place of sexuality, of repos, of sleep, of dreams; a place where one must leave the body to travel; a place of liberation and repression, creativity and creation, passivity and dominance, pleasure and pain; where we lay the dead. In Cixous’s own words, “[a] love bed arguably always leaves room for death.”

The second section introduces us to the Garden of Disappearances “where all that flees is desirable” and “where everything made me think of his death.” Cixous first experienced the Garden of Disappearances in Washington Square where she felt like she was in a “still unwritten book.” Here we learn that Dioniris has summoned Cixous to “remembrance, I became body or text or active tomb.” Dioniris, whose other name is Orphan, “son of his death,” instructs Cixous to “[r]emember us.” It is also here where we are introduced to the Squirrel for the first time. He pops up in the book three times. An important moment that may be missed in the English translation reads, “I tottered, seeing the corpse of a squirrel half buried in the grounds.” But in French, it is a play on words. It reads, “l’écureuil trouvé au seuil de la mort dans la terre.” L’écureuil — French for “squirrel” — is pronounced like les cure-oeil if the sound is drawn out, which means “that which cures the eyes.” Cixous writes in the prologue:

It all started transforming from and because of a Squirrel on Washington Square, my life changing into literature unbeknownst to me this October morning of 1964 from one moment to the next: I had really thought it was dead. I bend over. I tremble. Straight afterwards, a leap […] resurrection. Then from death to resurrection, from book to book, from literature to reality, I have never inaugurated a notebook without a greeting from the squirrel.

Cixous explains, “If Tombe were to have a subtitle, it would be Life or Death of a Squirrel.” Her philosophical thoughts paint the novel in coats of splintering poetic truths that hit the core of your being. She points to time as the great tomb of them all, capturing us in the shadow of the present and concealing it from us. Maybe love can make sense of it all:

The lover and the beloved are the two vases of the sand-glass. The sands flow from one into the other. Love turns the sand-glass upside down. Desire flows from one into the other the beloved exhausts the lover then the lover overturns the beloved in order to love him then the beloved takes back from the lover the product of love in order to exhaust it then the lover overturns love in order to be loved then the beloved overturns love inexhaustibly and there’s no present. Desire falls from one to the other body.

The second section closes with Cixous pursuing Dioniris, ending with questions that cut, as if “I shot an arrow than too late I wished I hadn’t but too late,” bringing home the subtitle of the section, “and how seduction flees from itself …,” where for desire “each victory of which is a defeat and each defeat another victory.” 

In the third section, she compares the story to a statue “representing a human creature larger than life.” The statue’s form allows it to capture movement that is not possible outside of a dream. This examination of form reminded me of Italian theater director Luigi Pirandello’s discussion on the tragedy of art:

A statue, I hate it! Every time I see a statue I could break it into bits. Form, cold form, frozen, eternalized death! Michelangelo felt this torment more than any of the others. How he despaired and raged, plunging into the marble, twisting his figures, seeking to get some movement into the dead forms, to make them live, live, LIVE — for life alone is true. And then, defeated by the inexorable, without hope, he abandoned them, so insatiate was he for real creation, for life. Oh, he was the greatest of the artists!

Pirandello argues that the tragedy in art is this form-movement paradox: that the artist must, in order to express his ideas, put them into form, and thus betray them by forcing them to undergo a “metamorphosis” killing the idea by “imprisoning” it in form. To Cixous the “universe is all metaphors and metamorphoses.” Postulating the statue and what is knowable, it is worth quoting Cixous in full:

One day, I think, I will read the book of myself, that day, with printing eyes I will pour the water of memory right on the book. That book will be my last bed, with the text lying in it: my body then like a slumber of the body of the Only Most Near man. This is what I desired: to be the immaterial production of the piece of his body, to add myself to his death, to be the rippling transparent sheet which envelops him and in the very time of weaving to dwell in the most secret part of the chest and mingled with the oldest of his desires to linger to efface myself on the endless edge of his Most Near body. To be dreamt of him as I dreamt him and just as a scene returns to my eyes so heartrending that I still tremble and flee from it: yet it was an imaginary scene, but so beautiful in its precision, so violent and so cruel that it could not fail to be true in some organic or dramatic place, in some story known by other dreamers or lovers or dancers. I attended it, yet I felt nothing, not more in truth than if I had read what I was seeing, and perhaps therefore I was reading it and emotions were coming to me worn out by a long journey through fiction, so that I could put up with the worst. 

Going through the third section, Cixous arrives at an impasse where she must traverse a wall “which is one flesh with memory.” This wall is invisible to the living and resembles a canvas that Dante had painted, where subjects sit side by side like lovers, “with a book in their lap” which is “our etymology. Is the reading of the most precious body, which nowadays cannot be found, of this Most Near man.” This is not a perfect reading. Cixous states: 

If I’d had other eyes to read him I could have reproduced his secret ink, Tombe would not have lacked the book in the place of which this one is being written. But if I had known why Tombe is being written and not the other one, I would not have had the desire or the obligation to return to this wall to the point of delirium.

Tombe, "the Book is itself a character of the book. I can see the Book young, just as I can see myself young in a dream […] Tombe does speak from within the book on the book […]" Tomb(e) cannot be this other “book” because “life prevents me from approaching where one dies.” The end of the third section introduces the Other who is “now here now here as a third”: 

What makes the Other formidable is not destruction and pain, it is that he is himself the bond of this evil that the flesh which loves is also the flesh turned against us, that if he weakens or becomes distracted the Other attempts to supplant him or sometimes to seduce him. 

The fourth and final section begins right where the third ended, examining the relationship of Three. Never alone again. Cixous asks:

Who is death? This woman, the Apparent, the worrying vulgar beautiful relative, impressive like all that outside waits before the door. If I had been able to kill her! but precisely it was impossible to killer her: to notice her is to give her back life. What seems to have to remain hidden must remain hidden behind the silk of the curtain, but those who out of awkwardness or by chance have disturbed that which is bound [se lie] from behind to the invisible, that which can be read [se lit] behind the back of the book, those see death one minute too early but they cannot be dead and they are thrown back onto the silk. They see what is in store for them, there is no time left at all/In the end, death leaves me and now I am thrown into a time which is not a piece of time but which is made of an extra-temporal substance./The tomb is my magical flagstone, my uneven cobblestone. One foot on the higher cobblestone, I go back in the past now.

One of the major themes of the book is deeply explored in this fourth section: what is visible and what is invisible, or more precisely: Es-ce que voir c’est savoir? (Is seeing believing?) Like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And with that we have only to remove the veil:

If all was seen and visible I would not be mortal, if each one knew the other and the other each one there would be neither night nor memory nor movement nor journey nor bed, but nobody would speak, there would be the absolute sun without any other shadow than silence and there would be no marriage or birth or knots or unknotting, no representation or rest or curtain everything would be exposed/but nobody would have eyes and all would be burst open from time immemorial:/Without eyelids, no eyes:/This is why what seems to have to remain hidden must remain hidden behind the canvas but those who by accident or chance have disturbed that which is tied from behind to the invisible, those see death one minute too early, but they cannot be dead and they are reflected onto the canvas. 

Tomb(e) ends in a dream where they “rest in the book.”


Finishing the text reminded me of the documentary film Derrida, in which an American reporter asks Cixous’s old friend: 

Ce que vous desirez dire de l’amour (Whatever you want to say about love.)

The reporter’s accent makes Derrida lean in and ask:

L’amour ou la mort? (Love or death?) 

If mispronounced, these two words sound the same. Derrida ponders for a moment and then says, 

L’amour … Je n’ais rien a dire sur l’amour (Love … I have nothing to say about love.

Il ne faut pas me demander ça … pourquoi les philosophes on parlé de l’amour […] ça a commencé comme ça la philosophie (You can’t ask this of me. Why have philosophers always spoken of love? That’s how philosophy started.)

Watching Derrida enter the labyrinth to search once again for that ever evading minotaur, love, and hoping not to mistakenly fall upon its double, death, one realizes that these musings very well could have come from Cixous herself as she attempted to separate love from death in her novel Tomb(e). She dares to burrow down to the core, and with her corporeal writing, excavate that tomb where only the body can be reborn, presenting us with an image, “a part of me but departed from me.” She is writing on the “side of life against death, for life without death, beyond a death whose test and threat are none the less endured, in mourning even in the life blood and breath, in the soul of writing.” In other words, Derrida was right: Cixous sided with life after all. But more importantly she shows us that “literature is erudite and philological right into its most familiar forms, that it is excavation and cathedral, labyrinth, calculation, geometry and virgin forests, theatre to the very last words.”


Benjamin Crockett is the Artistic Director of le Théâtre des Éphémères.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Crockett is the Artistic Director of le Théâtre des Éphémères. He received his MFA from the Institute For Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University (in collaboration with the Moscow Art Theater) and his BA from the University of California, Berkeley.


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