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Agony or ecstasy? Reading Cixous’s recent fiction

Citation: Rye, Gill (2000) Agony or ecstasy? Reading Cixous’s recent fiction. Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory, 23 (3). pp. 296-310. ISSN 0264-8334

Since Cixous’s work was first published over thirty years ago, her fiction has met with extreme reactions. It all depends, it seems, on whether her complex, poetical writing speaks to the reader/critic, or not. At one end of the spectrum, aficionados celebrate her work with their own Cixousian readings of her texts; at the other, her writing is met with accusations of elitism, utopianism, her polysemic fiction just too difficult, too demanding of the reader, untranslatable, unteachable, even unreadable. This polarity in the responses to Cixous’s work deserves further examination, especially given the implications of her polemical feminist-oriented essays of the 1970s which argue for the liberating and transformative power of literature: reading and the reader (thus Cixous’s own readers) must be significant players in the processes of socio-political and psychological change that she envisages, although her small readership and the marginal status of her work means that the impact of her own writing will be limited. In the first instance, this article considers how and why Cixous’s fiction continues to provoke such extreme reactions; it then goes on to engage more specifically with the idea that literature can bring about change by exploring the nature of the interaction between text and reader in Cixous’s work through an analysis of 'Beethoven à jamais ou l’existence de Dieu' (1993). The article is structured around the terms agony and ecstasy, which are not only indicative of the polarity in responses to her texts. Rather, ‘agony’ also carries the sense of struggle from the Greek 'agon', a contest - here, the agon of reading. The Greek root of 'ecstasy', ekstasis, literally means standing outside, beyond one’s normal state of mind or self - here, in the way the reader is encouraged to go beyond, beyond the text, beyond the text/reader agon, beyond even the self.

Additional Information: This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedited version of an article published in Paragraph 23.3 (2000), 296-310. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available on-line at
Creators: Rye, Gill ( and
DOI: DOI 10.3366
Official URL:
Related URLs:
Subjects: Culture, Language & Literature
Keywords: Helene Cixous, reading, politics of reading, intertextuality, agon, ekstasis
Divisions: Institute of Modern Languages Research
Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women's Writing
  • November 2000 (published)


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