Fantastic Metropolis

In Memoriam: Monique Wittig

(July 13, 1935–January 3, 2003)

L. Timmel Duchamp

I first read Les Guérillères almost a quarter of a century ago. The beauty of its language and imagery so stunned me, the fierceness of its depiction and enactment of war on the gendered category of “woman” so inspired me, its formal inventiveness so excited me, that Wittig’s work would have remained indelibly stamped on my memory had I read it only that once.


Les Guérillères is often called a “feminist utopia,” but although it is feminist, utopia it most definitely is not, unless “utopia” is taken for something other than a place.

“One is not born a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir famously declared, contending that the characteristics associated with women and their oppression are not essential to human society, but learned. Two decades later, Monique Wittig envisioned a war in which those characteristics, which she called an “imaginary formation,” would be overthrown. Such a war, her work implies, would not be against men per se but against the structures of culture — entailing a struggle with language, with historical narrative, with myth, a struggle with how both women and men hypostasize “woman.” Although David Le Vay’s translation uses the phrase “the women” repeatedly, both la femme and les femmes — signifiers of the imaginary formation that is the designated enemy in Wittig’s war — are almost entirely absent from the French text. Repeatedly Wittig uses the expression elles dissent, which Le Vay often translates as “the women say,” to indicate the gender that the third-person plural pronoun in English cannot inflect. “The women say” this and “the women say” that in a constant litany, hailing the creation of new myths, new historical narratives, a new material reality.

When I first read Les Guérillères, I had just begun writing fiction myself. The very idea of making war on language and narrative forms through the invention of new forms and the ideological subversion of language fired my imagination. “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied… You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But Remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent” (89). Without question, Les Guérillères profoundly influenced my very approach to writing.

My passion for Les Guérillères naturally led me to seek out every word by Wittig I could get my hands on. I read, next, The Lesbian Body. I understood from the author’s preface to the translated edition that I would be unable to experience the work’s full, radical impact, using as it does the French language’s relatively heavy inflection of gender against itself. And yet reading Le Vay’s translation, I could scarcely imagine language and imagery more radical. Here I heard the voices of women celebrating the fiercest physical love in astonishingly visceral language and imagery.

I discover that your skin can be lifted layer by layer, I pull, it lifts, it coils above your knees, I pull starting at the labia, it slides the length of the belly, fine to extreme transparency, I pull starting at the loins, the skin uncovers the round muscles and trapezii of the back, it peels off up to the nape of the neck. (15)

The prose poems of The Lesbian Body deconstruct and reconstruct the images the lover holds of the beloved’s body, often speaking in the name of “lesbianized” figures of history and myth: Orphea and Euridice, Ulyssa, “Christa the much-crucified,” and others, all repeatedly singing the praises of Sappho.

The Western tradition of love poetry presumed that men desire the beloved, while women desire only to be desired (by their lover). In that tradition, only men, in other words, can assume the subject-position and speak their desire of the beloved. Wishing to insert herself into that tradition, Wittig began with de Beauvoir’s premise that one is not born a woman and theorized that lesbians, by refusing and defying the heterosexual contract elucidated by Claude Lévi-Strauss, are not “women” by reason of their having refused to be objects for exchange by men. “Invent,” she urges in Les Guérillères. And so she did. In her preface to The Lesbian Body, moreover, she observes that the desire to write from a position previously not allowed to someone not male is a desire “to do violence to the language which I [j/e] can enter only by force.” Throughout The Lesbian Body, therefore, Wittig writes ”je” as ”j/e” — because ”je” “conceals the sexual difference of the verbal persons while specifying them in verbal interchange… J/e poses the ideological and historical question of feminine subjects” (x). A lesbian may not be a woman, in Wittig’s reckoning, but neither is she a man. Writing the poetry of love from the hitherto exclusively male subject-position, she uses a typographically fractured “I” — j/e — to reflect that lack of fit and identity of a woman (or lesbian) adopting that position.

Shortly after I found The Lesbian Body I discovered that Daughters, Inc. had published a translation of Wittig’s first novel, L’Opoponax, which I then ardently and tenaciously hunted down. Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Alain Robbe-Grillet selected this innovative bildungsroman for the Prix Médicis in 1964. Although my acquisition of The Opoponox left me with no new literary work to seek out until later, when Wittig published Across the Acheron, her revisioning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, throughout the 1980s I actively sought out her essays, many of which came to me by way of the Anglophone Feminist Issues and all of which were eventually collected in The Straight Mind in 1992. As a feminist, I found the clarity of Wittig’s theorization of gender and the politics of sexuality extremely helpful; as a writer, I especially valued her discussion of the significance that literary forms hold for content and that the enormous body of works, past and present, has for the writer. “The Trojan Horse” and “The Site of Action” (on the fiction of Nathalie Sarraute), both first published in 1984, stimulated and provoked my thinking about literary form, while “The Point of View: Universal or Particular?” published in 1980, enriched my understanding of the difficulties faced by authors of work classified as “minority literature” in their efforts to insert themselves into the “privileged (battle)field of literature.”

“The Trojan Horse” begins with an extended image. “At first it looks strange to the Trojans, the wooden horse, off color, outsized, barbaric… Then, little by little, they discover the familiar forms which coincide with those of a horse. Already for them, the Trojans, there have been many forms, various ones, sometimes contradictory, that were put together and worked into creating a horse, for they have an old culture… They come to see as strong, powerful, the work they had considered formless. They want to make it theirs, to adopt it as a monument and shelter it within their walls, a gratuitous object whose only purpose is to be found in itself” (68). Wittig proposes that “any important literary work is like the Trojan Horse at the time it is produced. Any work with a new form operates as a war machine, because its design and its goal is to pulverize the old forms and formal conventions. It is always produced in hostile territory. And the stranger it appears, nonconforming, unassimilable, the longer it will take for the Trojan Horse to be accepted” (69). But because of these Trojan Horses, “the old literary forms, which everybody was used to, will eventually appear to be outdated, inefficient, incapable of transformation” (69).

Reading this essay again in 2003, I find myself bracketing Wittig’s “any important literary work” as anachronistic. And yet conceiving of new forms as “war machines” engages me as much now as it did the first time I encountered it — although I have since become a good deal more critical of the idea. At first sight, in Wittig’s image, the Trojans know that the Greeks’ wooden horse is alien to them. Gradually, though, their perceptions of it change, and they begin to appreciate its artistry. Eventually not only do they come to accept the object but they even come to compare the old forms unfavorably to its new and different form. And so this “war machine” then becomes the new standard for what is strong, powerful, and sophisticated, and the old is deemed passé. In its overall shape, this is actually a rather familiar story, one that could be told about the history of forms and conventions in all the arts. But Wittig tells this familiar story with a difference. We are used to thinking of such changes in form as evolutionary. Wittig describes them as occurring suddenly, by way of alien and singular “war machines,” which have a revolutionizing effect on taste and consciousness, and claims, moreover, that the creators of these “war machines” know exactly what they are doing.

Although I continue to find Wittig’s story engaging, casting this narrative of shock, gradual acceptance, and replacement of the old form with the new as a story of revolution, I am ultimately dissatisfied with it. This narrative cannot, for instance, account for the example of the Beatles. I can still recall my excitement at the analysis we did of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in my advanced music theory class in the spring of 1970. The album, we found, offered a new formal structure, one very consciously created. Some three years later I was shocked and disgusted to hear a sentimentally orchestrated Beatles song performed as Muzak at my local grocery store. And in the years since, the individual songs on that magnificent album have been cannibalized for ads. Where was the revolution that I and my fellow students had so clearly perceived in that album? Could music continually taken out of context and re-presented in cynically nostalgic and sentimental iterations be considered in any way subversive? In late capitalist society, if a Trojan Horse has any popular appeal, is it not more likely to be assimilated to prevailing cultural forms and uses than to challenge their dominance and alter them?

Wittig, of course, specifies “literary work” in her essay and does not claim to be talking about all media of art, nor about art with popular appeal. She cites Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as “one of the best examples” of a “war machine.” Proust, she points out in an earlier essay, risked being categorized as a “minority” writer, and yet his grand opus became a triumphal, monumental “classic.” Djuna Barnes, she noted in the same essay, took a similar risk — only far more daringly — with the consequence that her work is in constant danger of disappearing. Despite — or perhaps because of — this discrepancy in the respective reception of their work, Wittig judges Barnes’s work more important than Proust’s. Curiously, Wittig is adamant in maintaining that the greatest disaster that could befall Barnes (or, earlier, Proust, who is now well past the point of the danger of being labeled a “homosexual writer”) is for her work to be categorized as “lesbian.” Once categorized as “lesbian,” she writes in “Point of View,” the text then “sees one of its parts taken for the whole, one of the constituent elements of the text taken for the whole text, and the book become[s] a symbol, a manifesto” (62). That Barnes’s work has not been pigeonholed into the “lesbian” category is more significant, in this view, than its risk of oblivion. I find this ironic, since although Barnes continues to have a literary following, such that the Dalkey Archive Press recently reprinted some of her work, to a large extent that work’s visibility over the last quarter century has been largely due to the interest of feminist and lesbian literary critics. When a friend of mine recently took a course on modernist fiction at the Evergreen State College, Barnes’s work did not rate inclusion on the syllabus and was only briefly mentioned in passing (with Woolf, Richardson, and Mansfield). Even now, the study of modernists who happened to have been female can seldom be found in non-feminist courses on modernist literature. Wittig herself taught in the Women Studies Department at the University of Arizona. It would be interesting to know whether her view of the risks of a writer’s being pigeonholed had changed since she addressed the problem in these essays.

Wittig emphasizes in “The Trojan Horse” that “committed” fiction would not qualify for her image of a work of literature operating as a “war machine.” “Literary work cannot be influenced directly by history, politics, and ideology because these two fields belong to parallel systems of signs which function differently in the social corpus and use language in a different way… In history, in politics, one is dependent on social history, while in one’s work a writer is dependent on literary history, that is, on the history of forms… History is related to people, literature is related to forms… The fact is, that in one’s work, one has only two choices — either to reproduce existing forms or to create new ones. There is no other” (69-70). I wonder if Wittig’s concern for the risk of a work’s being characterized as “minority writing” hasn’t, here, created a false dichotomy. Revolution in literature, she is arguing, can only be the creation of new forms, not writing that explicitly addresses political issues; writers revolt not against the material conditions of their world but against the traditional forms of their craft. The two “parallel systems of signs” should not, Wittig insists, be conflated. By this reasoning, Joanna Russ’s formally innovative The Female Man is revolutionary, while her more conventional narrative The Two of Them is merely an example of “committed” literature, and Samuel R. Delany’s stylistically experimental Dhalgren is revolutionary, but his Trouble on Triton is not.

Formal innovation in both The Female Man and Dhalgren is essential for enabling the presentation of the story each tells. Russ makes the explicit point that her formally innovative novel has a political agenda by ending with an apostrophe to the book itself, telling it that when its story has become “quaint and old-fashioned,” it should “Rejoice, little book! For on that day, we will be free.” The story told in The Two of Them, however, while stretching at least one of its narrative conventions to the breaking point, does not require an entirely new form for its telling. Most readers will be familiar with the Steed and Peel (or, variously, Gale) Avengers duo; Russ’s highly politicized reading of that duo and the feminist consciousness of the female partner in her version of the duo, results in murder which in turn seriously sabotages the conventional form she has used to tell the story. One might say that while The Female Man created a new formal structure (which is not likely to be adopted by another writer), The Two of Them shone a bright and revealing light on a familiar narrative convention, rendering all future use of it tricky, at best.

Triton, too, uses a conventional narrative form to call commonplace assumptions into question. Its protagonist, Bron Helstrom, is a heterosexual white male who would have been nicely comfortable (and likely satisfied) living in suburban North America in the 1970s. Traditionally, characters like Bron represent the universal — rather than the “particular” — human experience. Delany, however, inserts this protagonist who holds the dominant values of the world in which Delany was living at the time he wrote the novel into a world in which not only white men but also white women and people of color thrive. Readers who identify strongly with Bron tend to be deeply disconcerted by what the novel reveals to them about themselves — and about the particularity of values and experience that they are likely to consider “universal.” Although Triton’s narrative strategy may be described as dialogical, the formal structures of the novel are not intrinsically innovative. Rather than sabotaging a familiar narrative convention as Russ does in The Two of Them, in Triton Delany forges a new one (which has lately been adopted by John Kessel in “Men’s Stories” and Kim Stanley Robinson in “Sexual Dimorphism”) out of the familiar one and in the process reveals that the presumed “universal” point of view is in fact highly particular.

All four of these books, regardless of how formally innovative they may or may not be, consciously address ideological issues. So I could argue about other such dichotomous pairs I could list: for instance Pamela Zoline’s formally innovative “Heat Death of the Universe” vs. Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Conqueror’s Child; Shelley Jackson’s formally innovative Patchwork Girl vs. Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount; and Ursula K. Le Guin’s formally innovative Always Coming Home vs. James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Could I name which, of each pair, I consider more significant? Even if I chose to do so, not everyone would agree with my choices. Nor could I judge one work in each pair as more “revolutionary” than another and expect everyone to agree with me.

I would note that although all of Wittig’s novels are formally innovative, at least three of them sharply revolt “against the material conditions of [her] world.” But, as I have argued is the case for both The Female Man and Dhalgren, I would assert that Wittig’s novels are formally innovative only to the extent that they need to be in order to tell the stories the author wanted to tell. Is it meaningful, I wonder, to sort works according to their degree of formal innovation? Or, to ask a slightly different question: would a reader convinced that men and women are essentially different and fixed species have the ability to read Les Guérillères without reducing the work to a single, ideological element (its contention against the very existence of gendered categories), which is the fate Wittig sees attached both to “minority” and “committed” literature? And are the innovative elements of a work intrinsically more significant than the functions they serve within the work as a whole?

What Wittig’s novels share with the supposedly dichotomous works listed above is, in a word, imagination: an imagination that delights in the fantastic, an imagination that challenges arrangements in our world that most consider fixed and inevitable, an imagination that will invent new forms when it is necessary to do so to tell new stories never before related. Imagination, I would argue, defies the dichotomy that presumes that literature and language have nothing to do with people, with history, with politics. And the fantastic imagination frequently illustrates that the two systems of signs are not parallel, but communicating. Wittig’s own novels are in this respect exemplary.

Works by Monique Wittig

  • The Opoponox. Tr. Helen Weaver. Plainfield, Vt: Daughters, Inc, 1976.
  • Les Guérillères. Tr. David Le Vay. New York: Avon, 1973.
  • The Lesbian Body. Tr. David Le Vay. New York: Avon, 1976.
  • Across the Acheron. Tr. David Le Vay and Magaret Crossland. London: The Women’s Press, 1989.
  • The Straight Mind. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

On first reading Les Guérillères and The Lesbian Body I eagerly shared my copies with friends — just as I did with The Female Man, Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, Dhalgren, and other such “war machines.” Such sharing, as I’ve noted elsewhere, has always been a characteristic of the feminist sf community. I’d therefore like to conclude by quoting from Jeanne Gomoll’s Guest of Honor Speech at WisCon, a materialization of that community, in May, 2000:

Feminism, for me, has always been about making the largest number of choices available to everyone, regardless of sex. For me, science fiction and feminism came together beautifully in those days. There is a line in Monique Wittig’s classic SF novel Les Guérillères that still raises goose bumps on my skin. Wittig urges women who lack historical precedent or role models for their choices to use their imagination. Her phrase is, ”… and failing that — invent!” To me that’s always embodied the thrill and value of speculative fiction. I interpreted that to mean that writing and reading science fiction could have as profound an effect on people as actual experience — that we could try out a myriad of virtual futures, that we could choose and more importantly REHEARSE the ones that seemed most promising. It meant to me that this process could change our own lives and world around us; and what better place to imagine different selves and worlds than with science fiction?

I remember Monique Wittig today in a spirit of gratitude. Her fantastic fiction and brilliant imagination inspired my own fiction almost from the beginning. Like Gomoll, I, too, will always be moved and guided by her war cry:

Or, failing that, invent.

Copyright © 2003 by L. Timmel Duchamp.