In “Unmasked!”, Cixous examines the Theatre as a place free from misogyny, a space free from “countless symptoms, stiffness, blindness, treachery, uneasiness, hypocrisy, death and rape drives, denial” (179). What I find interesting, and want to look at briefly, is how Cixous tries to ground the religious on a kind of misogynistic hatred of “the unclean” and yet, in the end, her exploration of Theatre deploys not just religious language, but also the same kind of binary oppositions she wants to avoid.
The religious, for Cixous, operates along the logic of clean-unclean. The Bible (she quotes from Leviticus) creates clear boundaries, inside-outside, and outside is a “no man’s land,” meaning, the outside, is the feminine. A woman giving birth to a son is unclean for a week; for a daughter, the uncleanness lingers, twice as long (Cixous, 173-74). The unclean is not just the outside, it is at the boundary, or a place of mixture. Cixous declares that true writing is a “free traveler along edges and abysms…That writing suffers in fact the fate of birds, women, the unclean” (174). Through the economy of cleanliness, the world becomes divided, separated, and built on oppositions. No longer is creation seen down at the root, where “nothing is simple,” where everything is “twisted, doubled up, entangled” (175).
Cixous turns to Theatre as a refuge from this religious economy (or order) of cleanliness. In Theatre, all boundaries become blurry, and therefore everyone, male and female, lives in a kind of (feminine) border area, a “no man’s land.” To enter into the Theatre, as an actor, is to become undone, “stripped from head to foot down to one’s self” (179). The actors lose themselves; they become unknown, disfigured, “practically to the point of becoming nobody” (180). The mask comes on, and now the person(a) is a new person(a). The mask prevents the stripped-self from “getting its face back” (180). All who enter are negated: “one woman one man or the other, the space is ready to receive them without distinction, as to sex, age, race. There is no particularity” (180); the Theatre is a “kingdom that stretches beyond oppositions and exclusions” (181). In the Theatre, in acting, we come to know that “all creatures contain infinite possibilities of being an other. One possibility is just as good as another” (182).
Yet, this theatrical space is reconfigured and spoken of only in terms of inside-outside, of inclusion and exclusion, and hence, as a religion. The Theatre “was once a Temple…and doesn’t forget it” (179). Is this a Temple-beyond, a truly new space, a new kingdom? Or does it also bring with it the same logic and the same code?
I shall speak about the actors. They have arrived.
Undecided, detached, undressed, without any rank, unarmed, without any particularity. Joyously prepared for fate. There are no brothers, there are no wars. He might have been she….They have become unknown (179).
Religious idealism at its best! A glorious scene, the kingdom fulfilled, here and now, in our midst, and I am….inside!
For there are ‘the happy few,’ a small number, the miracles, a handful of charming grains of sand in the desert of millennia. (177).
And I am…she is….one of those few! I do not favor closing borders, I exist on the boundaries, and thus, I am…inside. A new inside. The boundary as the inside. “This extreme boundary state can last only so long as it is performed, acted, created” (182). Theatre is, therefore, liturgy, or ritual, whereby I am brought from the outside into the inside, into the kingdom. And the kingdom is here, at the Temple of Theatre, and not there, not elsewhere.
To be in the kingdom is to be beyond particularity–there is no particularity. The kingdom of the boundary, the kingdom of difference is now the universal kingdom. Difference so wide spread, so celebrated, that it ceases to be, or make, any difference. An unreal difference. Is this not a return of Enlightenment, of Kant’s Cosmopolis: the universal society, now founded on the theatrical reduction-as-celebration of difference. To contain infinite possibilities is to contain all possibilities, which means to contain all differences within a single, universal. Through acting (and watching), “a transfiguration comes into the bare shell” (181). To peer behind the mask (unmasking) reveals, not a new kingdom, but the old, the empty, universal, all-powerful, ever elusive self-defining self. Now, however, it is defining itself in its indefinite, undefinable qualities. Nevertheless, behind the mask, is the same old ideal, universal self.
Be that as it may, one should not let go of Cixous too quickly. For, where can we go? Back to a more benevolent ordering of religion, of inside and outside (i.e., the Christian colonial project)? Can we be certain that our own returns, our own attempted escapes, fare any better? Has not Cixous done what we all do–the best we all can do? Has not unmasking “the unmasked” also unmasked every unmasking, including our own? Is not her critique on the religious a religious critique of the religious, and hence, an important critique of our religion (and religious critique)? To put it plainly: in dismissing Cixous, do we not end up doing what we criticize her for doing? Cixous reveals so clearly what we have to avoid and yet, in the end, fail to avoid. All of us.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25, ESV).
Christians long to (and often have) interpreted Paul here as speaking of his life as a “religious” or devout Jew prior to his encounter with Jesus. But this misreading simply leads to the illusion that our own attempts to escape the logic of “death and rape drives” are vastly superior to Cixous. A simple reading of Church History should be enough to show that this is wrong.
“Only in God can men be so utterly dismembered” (Barth, Romans, 286). Dismemberment is not our work, it is God’s. Our religion–even that of the Church Fathers, or the Reformers–stands just as firmly under Christ’s condemnation and forgiveness as does Cixous’ religion of Theatre. But what the Church sees that Cixous does not, is that in Jesus, there is a way to live beyond mere particularity (seen as opposition) that does not become empty universality: that is what Paul calls life in Christ. However, what the Church must recognize and confess is that Cixous does not see this possibility in Christ not simply because we have not embodied it (which is true) but because we have not embodied it while proclaiming to embody it. Jesus, like the Theatre for Cixous, became a way of articulating our own thoughts, dreams, and visions of the kingdom. But Jesus, unlike the Theatre, should, can, and in fact does stand against our Jesus-religion (and every religious striving). In Jesus we can acknowledge the sinfulness of our religion, and know that Jesus is not just against us, but for us, and with us, even in our sinful religious strivings for a better world.
Life in Jesus is not a new self-possessed form of life; it is not one religious option among others, and therefore, as Barth strives to make clear, it can never be contrasted with others. “Perhaps also–in so far as we are ‘not we’ and ‘have not’–those ‘others’, that is to say, the many who are contrasted with us, cease to be others who do ‘not have’, but are they who hear us speaking in their tongues the wonderful works of God” (Barth, 274). We are on the outside, as those who have not, like others who have not, speaking about God’s faithfulness to us–all of us–who have, nothing. Life in Jesus does not allow us to create a new inside, for he has brought all “outside” into his body. To bring Cixous back: Jesus is the “no man’s land,” the feminine, unclean, crucified, weak, enslaved, and victorious Christ. In Jesus, our own failings to justly inhabit the world are exposed, condemned, forgiven, and restored. We live, not on the new inside, trying to condemn or convert the outside, but on the outside, knowing that every outside is already inside, and only exists inside, inside of the no-man’s land of Jesus’ body, a land we inhabit without ever possessing.