EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION: "FEMINISM'S ABJECT SELVES".
I unfortunately missed both these events, but I heard about them. In what turned out to be a small twist of historical irony on a personal scale, the announcements for them played a part in my decision to become a graduate student in the Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia, starting in September 1985. (If I'd been more diligent in my research I might have noticed that feminism was not, in fact, a central driving force in the department during those years.) When the book Poetics of Gender was published, I'd just started graduate studies, and I still have the volume, with its pink cover featuring a drawing of an army boot and a stiletto-heeled pump. In the interim, there have been many conferences on any number of topics hosted by the French department at Columbia, but feminism per se doesn't seem to have figured among them. It thus seemed like it might be time to revisit feminist topics, which along with everything else have changed a great deal over the past thirty years. The result of this rumination was "Beauvoir, Leduc, Wittig: Feminism's Abject Selves," which took place, also at the Maison Francaise at Columbia, on April 17 and 18, 2015.
The idea for this conference was conceived on Saturday, October 5, 2013, over drinks at the end of the "Proust Reread" conference that had just taken place at the Maison Francaise. Its origin was a conversation between Jeanine Plottel and Anne Garreta, who discovered a keen common interest in the works and legacy of Monique Wittig. They observed that since 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of publication of Wittig's novel L'Opoponax--I won't say seminal novel, because that work is anything but seminal, so let's say germinal instead--of Wittig's germinal novel L'Opoponax, which propelled her to much-deserved fame with the Prix Medicis in 1964, this important anniversary should be marked by a conference. Many further conversations ensued about how best to pay homage to Wittig's legacy. Eventually the possibility was evoked of questioning what had happened to the once-much-discussed topic of "French Feminism." "Whatever Happened to French Feminism?" was one title we came up with, but we wanted to maintain a literary emphasis, not to attempt any sort of "state of the discipline" event (as the "Poetics of Feminism" had apparently been intended to be, but the discipline and its state had become somewhat more murkily chaotic in the interim). We decided--or, to be entirely accurate, I decided--to focus on three key figures: Beauvoir, Leduc, and Wittig. This came about because from "Whatever Happened to French Feminism?" the topic evolved into "Beauvoir, Wittig, and the Legacies of French Feminism," and yet still I felt something was missing. I was also told that the word "legacy" in a title was a sure turnoff, indicating a tedious adherence to the past rather than a vigorous forward-looking dynamic, but to be honest that was not really why I decided to abandon the concept of legacies. Instead, I couldn't figure out what such legacies might consist of, or exactly which legacies might most usefully be in question.
What was missing became clear to me when, because I had decided to teach a course called "Renegade Sexualities and the Writing of the Self," I started rereading the works of Violette Leduc. Once I began rereading Leduc, starting with La Batarde, I quickly realized what the conference should focus on: abjection, specifically the twentieth-century tradition of first-person narratives of women's sexual abjection that these three writers variously represent, in terms, respectively and (to some extent) collectively, of the place of women in general, social class and aesthetic norms, and sexuality.
Abjection is a dicey concept, I realize, or at least a dicey word. And yet abjection seems to me to be an excellent starting point if we are to discuss the legacy of French feminism in general, and the works of these three authors in particular. I want to emphasize that the word "abjection" is not meant to be taken here in any special theoretically inflected Lacanian or Kristevan sense. The aim of the conference was not centrally theoretical but rather literary and cultural. Instead, "abjection" in this context is meant to convey precisely what the word means in its etymological sense of "thrown away" or "cast out." The word "abjection" is particularly given to misunderstanding, or at least particularly violent in its implications, in the French context. This was made clear to me when I wrote an article in 2013 for Philosophie Magazine's special issue on Proust. Having been asked to write about Proust's Jewish characters, I used the word "abjection" in discussing the character of Bloch (as incarnating Jewish abjection) in A la recherche du temps perdu. The editor was alarmed by this word and tried to cajole me into changing my wording. When I refused, citing etymology, I was asked to identify what exactly I meant by abjection in this context: by whom, in what manner, and so on. At first I was annoyed by this demand, which seemed to me to arise out of concerns not entirely unlike those that gave rise to the depiction in question. The editor appeared to be afraid that if I wrote about abjection in terms of Jews in fin-de-siecle France, without qualification, the reader might conclude that Philosophie Magazine might be seen as implicated in anti-Semitic stereotypes. Yet it seemed to me that this fear was in itself evidence that such stereotypes are both common currency in France today and--it is this, perhaps more than anything else, that has changed in the past century--at the same time, now actionable. In the end, I conceded that a cultural delineation would be useful. After some contemplation, I realized that the cultural delineation in question was that of French culture in its essential entirety, at the time. The same is true of this conference's frame of reference: it is in terms of French culture in general, if not Western culture in general, during the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, that the abjection of women we are looking at takes its place.
Simone de Beauvoir's crucially influential 1949 work Le Deuxieme Sexe took its title as a back-formation from the phrase le troisieme sexe, which was popular in the early twentieth century as an umbrella term to designate what we now refer to as alternative genders and sexualities, including same-sex sexualities, intersex and transsexual identities--in other words, everything not included in the narrow yet capacious rubric of normative heterosexual relations and gender identities. (A book entitled Le Troisieme Sexe, a sort of anecdotal taxonomy of the above, was published by the aptly pen-named Willy, who had been Colette's first husband, in 1927.) It is useful, I think, to remember that just as heterosexuality had no reason to exist as a category per se before homosexuality started to speak its name (and above all, to be spoken of in the third person), it took the identification of a third sex for the first and second to be so designated. And as far as I know, the first has never been so designated, except by implication. (2)
The condition of the second was thoroughly cataloged by Beauvoir in 1949, in a book that was so influential that its influence eventually became so diffuse as to be difficult to gauge, particularly in the context of what became known as French feminism. The latter, as everyone knows (except perhaps the French), was an American invention, the phrase coming to refer for the most part to the Kristeva-Irigaray-Cixous brand of lacano-essentialist theory, which became popular in American academic circles in the eighties, and which was not the subject of our conference.
Instead, the idea was to discuss an entirely different strain of "ecriture feminine." The title of the conference came about some time after the three authors had been chosen and everything else was in place. For some time we batted around various possibilities. I pushed for "Bad Girls," which would not have been appropriate for a conference on, say, Cixous, Kristeva, and Irigaray, but which seemed apposite for Beauvoir, Leduc, and Wittig. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and I eventually arrived at "Feminism's Abject Selves" in the course of a conversation with a friend and colleague to whom I was trying to explain the central idea. (And as anyone who has done or directed graduate work knows, the inability to articulate one's central subject in a few words is a sure sign of trouble ahead.) Everyone is always talking about abject others, I finally said, but here the point is to talk about the abject selves on such variously instructive display in the works of these three writers. My interlocutor said, "Well why don't you just call it that?" (3) So "Feminism's Abject Selves" it was, and I am pleased to report that the title immediately elicited indignant responses from several quarters, notably on the part of those who feel that abjection is best left to others.
This label, I realize, might seem more immediately applicable in the case of Violette Leduc, who wore her abjection on her metaphorical sleeve and took her abject self as the almost unvarying subject of her writing, or of Monique Wittig, who took the abjection of women and ran with it, making it into a war cry and going so far as to proclaim that not only was one not born a woman (pace Beauvoir), but one could actually manage to come out the other side and not be a woman at all if one were a lesbian. (4)
Beauvoir, however, with her chignon, her icy demeanor, her apparent self-sufficiency, and her elaborate auto-mythologization as Sartre's significant yet not exclusive other, at first glance fits less easily into the abject-self mold. And yet not only did she write insistently about feminine abjection, she also lived her fair share of it, especially as a direct result of her publication of Le Deuxieme Sexe. When that unprecedented study came out in 1949, as she reminisced to the German journalist Alice Schwarzer in an interview conducted decades later, the responses were remarkably violent. Upon initial publication of the chapter on sexuality in Les Temps modernes, for instance, Francois Mauriac wrote to one of her friends and collaborators on the journal, "I have learned a lot about your employer's vagina." (What exactly Mauriac imagined he'd learned about that organ remains unclear--I recently reread the entire book, on the lookout for among other things information about Beauvoir's nether regions, and came up empty-handed; but then perhaps I lack the Catholic novelist's discerning eye.) Albert Camus's response was at once less prurient and more to the point: "You have made a laughing-stock of the French male," he told Beauvoir. The author herself told Schwarzer that when the book came out, people expressed surprise at seeing her dressed "in a more feminine way" at La Coupole; they apparently assumed she would be a bull-dyke (camionneuse). "Because at the time," she explained to Schwarzer, "I was generally reputed to be a lesbian. A woman who dares to say such things simply can't be 'normal.'" (5)
Point well taken; it is true that a woman who dares to say such things can't be "normal." Normality is, after all, surely the problem. (6) In any case, Beauvoir managed to outlive the violence of her initial notoriety and become an eminence grise of the feminist movement. Posthumously, however, the extent of her divergence from normality became the object of public scrutiny (and in this sense it is unfortunate that she outlived Mauriac by sixteen years), with the revelations about her affairs with female students, the publication of her letters to Nelson Algren (written in charmingly approximate English), and, above all, her former student, the seduced and abandoned Bianca Lamblin, who published her devastating Memoires d'une jeune fille derangee in 1993.
A particularly feminine and feminist abjection, then, would seem to be embodied by all three of these authors, in their very different ways, and it was this that inspired the conference dedicated to them. They are, certainly, very different sorts of writers, and they have occupied and continue to occupy very different places in the literary and theoretical landscape, in France and the United States and elsewhere. When the conference speakers had been invited to address the general subject in whichever manner they wished, it came as a bit of a surprise to find that Leduc was, of the three authors, the one who excited the most commentary. The other two, in their very different ways, make less unlikely feminist heroines.
Simone de Beauvoir, whose reputation is too well known to require elaboration here, attained international fame with Le Deuxieme Sexe, which was first translated into English in 1953 by H. M. Parshley (in 2009 a new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier came out, occasioning a fresh round of debate), and remained an adulated figure in world feminism until her death in 1986, and after, even if posthumously published writings by Beauvoir as well as others provoked renewed controversy and called parts of her legacy into question. Her reputation is still a bit mixed, not just because of the revelations about affairs with students (and especially her seemingly ignoble treatment of Bianca Lamblin during the war) but also because she is known in approximately equal parts as the author of Le Deuxieme Sexe and the partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, to whom her deference in life has been echoed by the respective roles assigned them by posterity.
Monique Wittig, upon winning the Prix Medicis for L'Opoponax in 1964, was initially hailed in France as an experimental writer. That work is notable for its opaque title, complete lack of paragraph breaks, and idiosyncratic use of pronouns as well as proper names. Marguerite Duras wrote about L'Opoponax: "C'est peut-etre, c'est meme a peu pres surement, le premier livre moderne qui ait ete fait sur l'enfance." (7) After this remarkable literary debut, Wittig went on in the late sixties and early seventies to become a founding member of the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes as well as the more radical groups Les Gouines rouges and Les Feministes revolutionnaires. In her subsequent work, she continued to experiment with language, but with a visibly incendiary lesbian-feminist revolutionary bent that made such works as Les Guerilleres (1969), Le Corps lesbien (1973), and Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes (1976, cowritten with Sande Zeig) markedly less well received in France than L'Opoponax. In 1976, Wittig and her partner Sande Zeig left France for the United States. She taught in visiting positions at Berkeley and Vassar before becoming a professor of French and women's studies at the University of Arizona, where she remained from 1990 to her death in 2003. (Her doctorate was from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales [EHESS]; she wrote a dissertation under the somewhat unlikely direction of Gerard Genette, with Louis Marin and Christian Metz as readers.) Wittig was a crucial figure in radical lesbian-feminist culture in the United States in the seventies and eighties. Her works were all quickly translated into English and read with passionate intensity by budding revolutionaries (such as yours truly) who bought them in lesbian bookstores and, leather-clad, readied themselves for the gender apocalypse the books seemed to herald. It never came, though, at least not in anything like the form suggested by such works as Les Guerilleres. By the time I taught that book at the University of Virginia in 1993, the students seemed perplexed by her anger (and I was in turn angered by their perplexity). In the age of gay marriage and LGBTQI activism, Wittig's works of revolutionary lesbian separatist rage seem to belong to a recent past slightly embarrassing in its earnest allegiance to the idea of total gender annihilation through violent linguistic overthrow. It is for her essays, the theoretical ruminations of "The Mark of Gender" and the other essays collected in The Straight Mind, that Wittig continues to be influential, in large part through Judith Butler's use of her work in Gender Trouble (1990). And L'Opoponax, with its distanced depiction of the strangeness of childhood and more oblique approach to questions of gender and sexuality than in Wittig's later works, remains as bracingly innovative as when it was first published more than half a century ago.
Violette Leduc, unlike Beauvoir or Wittig, was not a political activist, and it may be for this very reason that she provides such a paradoxically attractive subject of attention today. Born in 1907 to a young unmarried woman who had worked as a maid for a rich family in the north of France and conceived her through coerced sex with a son of the family, Leduc spent her childhood, and indeed her entire life, acutely aware of her status as the literal incarnation of her mother's abjection. Her literary career was the more or less direct result of two events that occurred during World War II, both described in her 1964 autobiographical bestseller La Batarde. First, Maurice Sachs, fed up with listening to her compulsive narrative of her complaints, handed her a pen and a notebook and directed her to write it all down. Second, not long afterward, she saw, and then read, Beauvoir's first novel, L'Invitee (1943). She began writing and never stopped, until her death in 1972. Most of her works, from her first novel, Ravages (1955), to her last, La Chasse a I'amour (published posthumously in 1973), return dauntlessly to her central preoccupations: her illegitimacy and resulting unhappy childhood, her tremendous ugliness (this would seem to be a more or less symbolic embodiment of her abjection; as the photographic record attests, she was not nearly as ugly as she makes herself out to be), and her erotic obsessions. Leduc has become known as a lesbian writer, and the welcomed new English translation of the uncensored Therese et Isabelle, published by the Feminist Press in 2015, will do nothing to dispel this impression. It is certainly true that Therese et Isabelle, which was originally part of Ravages but was removed by Gallimard and published only in unexpurgated form in 2000, offers a remarkably steamy depiction of sex between girls at boarding school (the same events are gone over in only slightly less steamy form in La Batarde as well). It is also true that L'Affamee (1948) details the author's passionate obsession with an unnamed person who is instantly recognizable as Simone de Beauvoir. And yet to call Violette Leduc a lesbian is inaccurate, surely, given that she also pours out onto paper her intense erotic feelings for a number of men--notably Maurice Sachs, Jean Genet, Jacques Guerin; always gay men. Violette Leduc's most ardent feelings seem to have been directed toward those least likely to reciprocate her ardor. As Beauvoir acutely comments in the preface she wrote to La Batarde, Leduc depicts herself as unable to bear either the presence or the absence of those close to her, and so her real allegiance is to the reader, that ideal interlocutor who is neither present nor absent. Leduc's sexual preference, in the end, is us.
The articles that follow examine the works and lives of these three writers from a number of angles. Ann Jefferson, who is currently writing the biography of Nathalie Sarraute, looks at the subject of female friendship as it intersects with the "entry into literature" of each, especially as it concerns the interactions all three had with Sarraute. Jean-Louis Jeannelle, editor of the Pleiade edition of Beauvoir's autobiographical writings, takes on the intersecting and divergent valences of Leduc's and Beauvoir's autobiographical legacies. The feminist art historian Elisabeth Lebovici rereads texts by Beauvoir, Leduc, and Wittig--L'Invitee, La Batarde, and L'Opoponax--in terms of their impact in a queer story of apprentissage. Edouard Louis, the young author whose autobiographically inflected first novel, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, became a surprise best seller in France in 2014 and has now been published in English translation as The End of Eddy, writes here about how Violette Leduc, especially in her discovery of the works of Simone de Beauvoir, provided a parallel and inspiration for his own story. Michael Lucey, author of books on Gide, Balzac, and the use of the first person by Proust, Colette, and Gide, approaches Leduc's iconoclastic depictions of sexuality in terms of what they can tell us about the sociological ramifications of sexuality, concentrating in particular on their resonance with the work of Pierre Bourdieu. The final essay is a brief reminiscence of Monique Wittig by Jeanine Parisier Plottel, author of books on intertextuality and on Paul Valery, among other subjects.
The conference on which this cluster of essays is based, in both its conception and its execution, could not have happened without the collaboration of Jeanine Parisier Plottel, Columbia PhD and professor emerita of French at CUNY and Hunter College. She has our enduring and most ardent gratitude. As she recounts in the final essay here, as chair of the Romance Languages department at Hunter College in 1984, when she met Monique Wittig and heard the latter's presentation at the 1984 "Poetics of Gender" conference at Columbia, she tried, and unfortunately failed, to hire Wittig as a faculty member at Hunter. If she had succeeded, the history of feminist studies might conceivably have been very different.
Auden, W. H., and Louis MacNeice. Letters from Iceland. London: Faber and Faber, 1937.
Beauvoir, Simone de. Le Deuxieme Sexe. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.
--. L'Invitee. Paris: Gallimard, 1943.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Lamblin, Bianca. Memoires d'une jeune fille derangee. Paris: Balland, 1993.
Leduc, Violette. L'Affamee. Paris: Gallimard, 1948.
--. La Batarde. Paris: Gallimard, 1996 .
--. La Chasse a I'amour. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.
--. Ravages. Paris: Gallimard, 1955.
Louis, Edouard. The End of Eddy. Trans. Michael Lucey. New York: FSG, 2017.
Miller, Nancy K., ed. The Poetics of Gender. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
Schwarzer, Alice. After the Second Sex: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir. Trans. Marianne Howarth. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Willy. Le Troisieme Sexe. Paris: Gay Kitsch Camp, 2014.
Wittig, Monique. Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes. Paris: Grasset, 1976.
--. Le Corps lesbien. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1973.
--. Les Guerilleres. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969.
--. L'Opoponax. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983.
--. La Pensee straight. Paris: Balland, 2001.
--. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon P, 1992.
(1.) This collection was later translated into French under the title La Pensee straight.
(2.) An Internet search of the term "first sex," for instance, brings up many discussions about what it's like to have sex for the first time, but none about men as such. "Second sex," when Googled, yields references to Simone de Beauvoir, and "third sex," articles about gender ambiguity.
(3.) Thank you, Alex Wettlaufer.
(4.) "Lesbians are not women," she concludes in her essay "The Straight Mind," which, before becoming a published article and eventually lending its title to the collection already alluded to, was delivered at the 1978 Modern Language Association conference, its final sentence producing, in the words of Louise Turcotte, "a stunned silence." See Turcotte's preface to Wittig's The Straight Mind, viii; the sentence itself is at the conclusion of the essay as reprinted in the same volume, 32.
(5.) See Schwarzer 72. The remarks of Mauriac and Camus are also cited here by Beauvoir.
(6.) "Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality! / What murders are committed in thy name! / Totalitarian is thy state / Reality, Reeking of antiseptics and the shame / Of faces that all look and feel the same," writes Auden in his "Letter to Lord Byron." See Auden and MacNeice 207. I am indebted to my friend and colleague Edward Mendelson for this reference, which he quoted to me extemporaneously when I ran into him on my way to the conference.
(7.) See her postface to the 1983 edition of the novel.
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|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Article Type:||Conference notes|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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