Utopia in blood; Monique Wittig's Les Guerilleres.
This unexpected redistribution of power offers a space for Wittig's warrior women to fight against harms caused by hegemonic men, and the apocalyptic battlefields of Les Guerilleres, bloody zones existing largely outside time and space occupied by gender-based armies, become an experimental locale in which Wittig's feminist protagonists elles embrace their newfound potential for violence, raze the damaging misogynistic systems and traditions caused by sexism and emblazon future gender relationships with promises of equality. Therefore, although Wittig does deploy highly graphic depictions of war itself in Les Guerilleres, and mangled corpses, calls to arms and sinister and bloody battles do abound in the text, these marks of destruction are not blemishes, but ultimately indicate, much to the contrary, signs of hope.
Wittig crafts an improbable feminist utopia by using violence to declare war on the ontology, the language, and the history that have promulgated women's inferiority and that have fomented alterity. Erika Ostrovsky points out that "the concept of a work of art as a 'war machine is extended to the entirety of the text, since Les Guerilleres is an epic of warfare against the established order, primarily that of male domination" (Ostrovsky 194). In Les Guerilleres, the women warrior protagonists elles confront most prominently the sexist male belief that women are weak and the apparent biological heirs of servitude and domestic submission, and the unraveling of the teleological taint ascribed to women throughout time therefore becomes paramount:
Les choses etant en cet etat, elles font venir les metiers.... les brocheuses les tables de montages les brucelles les chalumeaux les fers a souder les fris a tresser a tordre a enfiler.... Elles les entassent sur un bucher immense auquel elles mettent le feu, en faisant exploser tout ce qui ne brule pas. Alors se mettant a danser autour, elles battent des mains, elles crient des phrases obscenes, elles coupent leurs cheveux ou bien elles les denouent. (Wittig, Les Guerilleres 102-3)
Without the onuses of weaving and sewing and cooking and cleaning impeding their actions, the women acquire formidable potential: the vehement rejection of domestic labor in favor of their own self-derived imperatives and choices empowers the protagonists. As Brad Epps and Jonathan Katz emphasize, "For Wittig reality as 'naturally given' is a congeries of ideas whose historical force is such that the ideas--say, black and white in a racial register, or man and woman in a sexual register--are naturalized as real, purely and simply, that is to say, 'self-evidently.' But the self-evident, like the regime of evidence to which it belongs, is for Wittig deeply suspect, if not simply false" (Epps and Katz 425). This observation accurately arranges Wittig's distaste for and resistance of ontologizing forces derived from difference. The historical transitivity of objects such as sewing machines and washing machines with women's duties and essence is unacceptable to Wittig, so she elects to reappropriate them in a manner contrary to their common and fundamental uses. In the previous passage, elles superimpose their own purposes on the objects that are destroyed and use them for their own ends: the fire made from them becomes an occasion for dance, and its light is used for cutting and unknotting hair. The extirpated symbols of women's helotry, the tainted fruits of a poisonous tree of gender inequality, represent for Wittig a rewriting of a bogus and noxious reality in which woman's subservience to man is customary, and their elimination celebrates a limitless tabula rasa regarding women's responsibilities and abilities (including the generation of space for the bearing of arms).
The violent refusal of obligations for and definitions of women created and made normative by hegemonic males is central to the battle ethic embraced by elles throughout Les GueriUeres, a many-layered and complex construction of rogations to violence invented by the author that are invariably accompanied by feminist reversions and revisions. Just as the objects enumerated in the previous passage undergo annihilation and reconfiguration, so too does Wittig vitiate the lexical and historical prejudices to which women had been subjected and construct positive feminist ideology in their place. Using precisely this systemic set of parallel processes of destruction and reformation, elles experience a purposeful erasure and rebuilding:
Elles disent qu'a partir du moment oU les feminaires font defaut elles peuvent se reporter a ce temps oU ... elles ont fait la guerre. Elles disent que tout ce qu'elles ont a faire c'est inventer les termes qui les decrivent sans se reporter conventionnellement aux herbiers ou aux bestiaires. Elles disent que cela peut etre fait sans emphase. (Wittig, Les GueriUeres 74)
In this excerpt, the protagonists forcefully forbid memories of weakness and references to any time during which they were not wamors and simultaneously affirm the superiority of their own vocabulary over any other, thus engaging, as Teresa de Lauretis distills from Wittig's theoretical writings, in a practice in which "the Marxist concept of class consciousness and the feminist concept of individual subjectivity must be articulated together" (de Lauretis 40). This insight facilitates an understanding that in spite of the plurality of the pronoun itself, elles manage(s) to signify a social oneness, a collective noun operating in the singular, an oxymoronic cohesive individuality that lurks beneath the multiplicity of the subjects' voices: elles is all women, elles is one woman. With the proscription above against any ontological analysis of women being generated by anyone other than women themselves, Wittig also assigns value to women's capacity to inflict harm: "Elles disent qu'elles savent ce qu'ensemble elles signifient. Elles disent, que celles qui revendiquent un langage nouveau apprennent d'abord la violence" (Wittig, Les GueriUeres 120). Freedom for the women thus depends mutually on elles' collective ability to understand violence, to embrace their martial potential without pause:
Elles font revenir a la vie ceux qui ont bati leur celebrite sur leur ruine en exaltant leur esclavage soit dans les ecrits soit dans leurs lois soit dans leurs actes. Pour eux sont preparees les machines a etirer les filieres les machines a tordre a mouliner. Elles bouchent leurs oreilles avec de la cire pour ne pas entendre leurs cris discordants. Quand elles les ont fait detremper dans des bains d'eau melee d'acide, quand elles les ont files etires tordus battus, elles traitent leur peau suivant la technique habituelle du corroyage ou bien elles les font secher au soleil ... (Wittig, Les Guerilleres 156-8)
Once elles fully disentangle themselves from historical obedience and submission to men and team to match men's capacity for cruelty and physical torment as illustrated by the passage above, this parity is but an intermediary step in their tutelage as warriors. As Wittig demonstrates, elles must also maintain a language that reifies their autonomy as women, and any diversion from this praxis is unacceptable, even lethal, in Les Guerilleres. Even improper understanding of language itself has heinous consequences for the warrior women:
Elles disent, malheureuse, ils t'ont chassee du monde des signes, et cependant ils t'ont donne des noms, ils t'ont appelee esclave, toi malheureuse esclave. Comme des maitres ils ont exerce leur droit de maitre. Ils ecrivent de ce droit de donner des noms qui vont si loin que l'on peut considerer l'origine du langage emanant de ceux qui dominent. Ainsi ils disent qu'ils ont dit, ceci est telle ou telle chose, ils ont attache a un objet et a un fait tel vocable et par la ils se le sont pour ainsi dire appropries. Elles disent, ce faisant ils ont gueule hurle de toutes leurs forces pour te reduire au silence. Elles disent, le langage que tu paries t'empoisonne la glotte la langue le palais les levres. Elles disent le langage que tu parles est fait de mots qui te tuent. (Wittig, Les Guerilleres 162)
Man's language, ancient and harmful to women, cannot serve as a stable or proper means of communication for elles because, as Wittig suggests, women have been omitted from linguistic construction and production throughout time. Carolyn Gage observes, "Wittig is clear that patriarchal language is a language of ownership, and that women must resist it" (Gage 57). In this context, the entire novel may be read as an actualization of what Wittig proclaims so forcefully in her essay "The Mark of Gender":
Sex, under the name of gender, permeates the whole body of language and forces every locutor, if she belongs to file oppressed sex, to proclaim it in her speech, that is, to appear in language under her proper physical form and not under the abstract form, which every male locutor has file unquestioned right to use. The abstract form, the general, the universal, that is what the so-called masculine gender means, for the class of men have appropriated the universal for themselves. (Wittig, The Mark of Gender 66)
It is for this reason that Wittig infuses other neologisms (invented words, feminized nouns) into her text in order to purify French of its male pollution; with man posited as the enemy in Les Guerilleres, all things male are suspect and therefore potential impediments to victory in the gender war. As Kathleen L. Komar notes, "By being able to declare themselves in language, women can create a female subjectivity that can claim a place in the larger social and cultural world. Language literally creates a space in which they can escape both silence and reification into the objects of someone else's spatial creation" (Komar 230). Wittig's feminist modulation of the vernacular itself thus constitutes a powerful shield in elles' arsenal. As language is gradually destroyed and rebuilt to suit the ideological and military purposes of the warrior women, it can no longer be appropriated against them, ceases to be a tool of man's oppression, and offers freedom from the confining, restrictive, fatal definitions by which men had classified women and thereby achieved ascendency over them. In this reversal, by dismissing and divesting meaning from words such as "whore" and "bitch" and "slave" in common parlance, these words lose their potency and cease to function as weapons.
However, in the volatile and fluid interregnum that constitutes the war between the genders in the novel, other significant transformations must take place in order to facilitate the eventual sharing of power by both. By inverting and rendering impossible the misogynistic objectification of women by men, Wittig eliminates prettiness as a quality by which women are extolled and venerated in this novel: elles acquire worth by being sufficiently bellicose, not through their beauty. This shift away from the sexist valuation of faciality and body forces a reconsideration of women in terms of agency:
est-elle ou n'est-elle pas morte? ... La carotide tranchee laisse passer le sang a flot. Il y en a sur les vetements blancs. Il a coule sur la poitrine, il s'est repandu, il y en a sur les mains. Quoique brilliant, il semble fige et epais. Des caillots ont forme des croutes sur les vetements. Les bras sont ballants de chaque cote d'iris Our.... Sur sa bouche il y a une espece de sourire, les dents sont decouvertes. Plus tard le sourire s'elargit, c'est un rire qui commence. (Wittig, Les Guerilleres 56)
Here, rather than encountering the expected threnody in which the beauty of a dying woman would be classically glorified, as the character fades into death, description centers on the flow of blood from the sliced carotid artery and details the emergence of laughter instead of mourning. In this bucolic passage, Wittig emphasizes that it is the woman's martial sacrifice that matters more than her beauty by circumventing any mention of the character's comeliness. It is because of her willingness to embrace violence that the pulchritude of her wounds becomes Iris Our's improbable eulogy. Her sanctification in these decidedly non-sensual terms thus wards against any sexualized confiscation of her essence by men.
Wittig further extends her examination of voyeurism and objectification as battle tactics and then exposes them as cruel and injurious:
Elles disent qu'ils mettent tout leur orgeuil dans leur queue. Elles se moquent ... Quand elles ont un prisonnier, elles le mettent nu et le font courir dans la rue en criant, elle est ta verge / vergette / batogue / baguette / broche brochette / verge de plomb. Quelquefois il s'agit d'un beau corps evase aux hanches oU la peau est miellee oU les muscles n'apparaissent pas. Elles le prennent alors par la main et le caressent pour lui faire oublier tous leurs mauvais traitements, (Wittig, ?es GueriUeres 152-3)
While the women's hooting at the captive and naked male prisoners mid mockery of their penises are merely a gender transformation and recasting of the same deplorable acts that sexist men commit when sexualizing the bodies of women, elles eventually differ here from their male counterparts in that there is a progressive cognizance of the pernicious effects of such dehumanizing treatment, and the protagonists make overt attempts to make remedies and assuage their captive as a consequence. Nonetheless, Wittig's tone in this passage is clearly derisive. The aggregate insults that elles launch regarding man's absurd obsessions with the penis establish, in a manner similar to the creation of pejorative terminologies like "kraut" and "gook" and "limey" during wartime to demonize the enemy, sorority and commonality amongst the women soldier protagonists: such linguistic violence is militarily efficacious.
Wittig uses similar sarcasm elsewhere in Les GueriUeres to invoke and promote warrior sentiment amongst the women. The revulsion that elles experience upon contemplating any sort of compulsory dependence on men leads to a mirthful affirmation of their autonomy:
... elles disent que des animaux elles ne pourraient pas en manger, mais que de l'homme, oui ... 11 leur dit ... si vous le mangez, qui ira travailler dans les champs, qui produira la nourriture les biens de consommation, qui fera des avions, qui tes pilotera, qui fournira des spermatozoides, qui ecrira les livres, qui gouvernera enfin? Elles alors rient en decouvrant leurs dents le plus qu'elles peuvent. (Wittig, Les GueriUeres 140)
The women's laughter at the notion that essential functions of society would come to a halt without men is secondary to the observation that in this passage, elles do not regard men as a source of sustenance, but as sustenance itself. The women warriors' professed desire to consume their enemy through cannibalism combined with their unified ranking of the male below other lower creatures confirms an explicit rejection of the notion that the inequitable subordination of women to men will be peipetuated. Although elles do not ever engage in this act in Les GuerMeres, their preparedness to devour the fiesh of man demonstrates a summative fearlessness and lack of hesitation or reservation in killing their enemy, further building the feminist warrior ethos that Wittig continues to inculcate in her protagonists.
Given the extensive preparation that elles receive for battle and the listings of their successive victories in the text, their conquest of the male enemies at the end of Les Guerilleres is not unexpected. However, as Wittig expressly and volcanically attacks the traditional gender intersubjectivity that has resulted in the subjugation of women in Les Guerilleres, she is careful not to re-inscribe sex-based inequities permanently when her women warriors emerge from battle victorious. Any reconstitution of a power hierarchy in which women would have greater influence than men would engender the same sort of problems that had been created by the male hegemony. The dystopia made utopia of the novel becomes in actuality a quest for parity, an actualization of Wittig's "struggle to have women's voices recognized as speaking for all of humanity" (Wilkens 71). Even though blood is spilled and deaths occur in both armies, Wittig envisions these losses as necessaiy evils in the process of according power to women that equals that of their male counterparts, and in spite of the relentless truculence and antipathy that have pervaded the novel, the establishment of gender parity as a universal and a permanent end to violence are actually the spoils of the war that Wittig seeks:
Elles s'adressent aux jeunes hommes en ces termes, jadis vous avez compris que nous nous sommes battues pour vous en meme tempsque pour nous. A cette guerre qui a ete aussi la votre vous avez pris part. Aujourd'hui, ensemble, repeteras comme un mot d'ordre, que toute trace de violence disparaisse de cette terre, alors le soleil a la couleur du miel et la musique est bonne a entendre. Eux applaudissent et crient de toutes leurs forces. Ils ont apporte leursarmes. Elles les enterrent en meme temps que les leurs en disant, que s'efface de la memoire humaine la guerre la plus longue, la plus meurtriere qu'elle ait jamais connue, la derniere guerre possible de l'histoire. Elles souhaitent aux survivantes et aux survivants l'amour la force la jeunesse, qu'ils fassent une alliance durable sur des bases qu'aucun differend ne pourra compromettre a l'avenir. (Wittig, Les Guerilleres 184)
Given the extent to which Wittig writes about the agelessness of this conflict and depicts its sinister consequences in Les Guerilleres, the optimistic prescience of durable peace in this passage is perhaps the end of the most climatic literary crescendo in the author's canon. The fragmented passages of Les Gueriileres, hardly a linear narrative, but a fractured tale of anytime and anyplace, may in fact point prophetically to an eventual end to the cultural recasting of gender difference as a mine for domination of the other, to an actualization and universalization of Wittig's utopian vision of hale intersubjectivity between all sexes, without blood.
Bourque, Dominique. "On dirait une revolution: l'originalite formelle de l'oeuvre de Monique Wittig." Tessera 30 (2005): 92-98. Print.
De Lauretis, Teresa. "When Lesbians were not Women." On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political and Literary Essays. Ed. Namascar Shaktini. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. 37-43. Print
Epps, Brad and Jonathan Katz. "Monique Wittig's Materialist Utopia and RadicalCritique." GLQ 13.4 (2007): 423-54. Print.
Gage, Carolyn. "Monique Wittig; 1935-2003: Failing to Remember, Invent." Off Our Backs 33.5-6 (2003): 56-57. Print
Komar, Kathleen L. "Exiles in Their Own Lands: Women Writers and Linguistic Exclusion." Kulturpolitik und Politik der Kultur/Cultural Politics and the Politics of Culture. Ed. Helen Fehervary and Bemd Fischer. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Print.
Ostrovsky, Erika. "Religion in the Fiction of Monique Wittig." Religion in French Feminist Thought: Critical Perspectives. Eds. Joy Moray, Kathleen O'Grady and Judith L. Paxton. London: Routledge, 2003. Print
Wiikens, Cybelle McFadden. "Body, Text and Language: Wittig's Struggle for the Universal in Les Guerilleres." Women in French Studies 12 (2004): 70-84. Print.
Wittig, Monique, Les Guerilleres. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1969. Print.
--."The Mark of Gender." Feminist issues 5.2 (1985): 66. Print.
Western Carolina University
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|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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