Internationally recognized as a talented experimentalist, Wittig's goal was to "pulverize the old forms and formal conventions." "It is quite possible for a work of literature to operate as a war machine upon its epoch," she said, not by direct political intervention, but rather by linguistically "universalizing" a particular point of view.
Monique Wittig was born in 1935 in Alsace, France; her father was Henri Dubois, a poet. She attended the Sorbonne and studied with some of the great French intellectuals of the time. (Picture: Sande Zeig)
Her first book L'Opoponax, published in Paris in 1964 when she was 28, won the prestigious Prix Médicis and garnered high praise from well-established French writers Marguerite Duras and Natalie Sarraute and, in America, from Mary McCarthy.
The book, about childhood, was purely descriptive and objective, relentlessly in the present and subversively inclusive. Its universalizing point of view provoked readers to enter its world. "I see, I breathe, I chew, I feel through her eyes, her mouth, her hands, her skin ... I become childhood," wrote Claude Simone in his review.
Monique Wittig startled her audience at the Modern Language Association Convention in 1978 when she announced with conviction, "I am a lesbian not a woman." Sande Zeig is from New York. She studied theater in Wisconsin and Paris. In 1975, Zeig was living in Paris, studying mime and teaching karate when she met the writer Monique Wittig. Zeig's 2000 film, The Girl is based on a short story by Wittig. Zeig is the founder of New York film distribution company Artistic License.
Translated into English two years later, it was favorably reviewed in the most prestigious literary publications--The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker--as a virtuoso work of avant-garde writing.
Les Guérillères, published five years after Wittig's first book, is a structured series of prose poems, again revolutionary in form and language, but this time revolutionary in politics also. In this chronicle of epic warfare, elles are the sovereign presence, conquerors of the world and the word.
Elles are not "the women"--a mistranslation that often surfaces in David Le Vay's English rendition--but rather the universal "they," a linguistic assault on the masculine collective pronoun ils.
For Wittig, gender in language is the "fictive sex." Linguistic gender marks social convention, she says in an essay entitled "The Mark of Gender," "cast[ing] sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it." Thus, as women are marked by gender in language (particularly French), so are they marked in the social world, always particular, never universal as is "man."
Other masculine conventions, such as the power of the phallus, are refused and examined for absurdity: "They do not say that vulvas with their elliptical shape are to be compared to suns, planets, innumerable galaxies.... They do not say that the vulva is the primal form which as such describes the world in all its extent, in all its movement. They do not in their discourses create conventional figures derived from these symbols."
Seen as a book emerging from Women's Liberation, Les Guérillères was not as enthusiastically received as L'Opoponax. Nevertheless, it is probably the most widely read of any of Wittig's books to date.
A progression in Wittig's work toward lesbian subjectivity reached its explicit statement in her third and most controversial book, Le Corps lesbien (1973). Appropriating sources as varied as Greek mythology and the Christian mass, Wittig "lesbianizes" familiar figures: Ulyssea returns from her long voyage to the Amazon islands; the veil of Christa "the much-crucified" illuminates the anguished body; and Sappho, a lesbian legend in her own right, is elevated to the stature of a goddess.
In the title itself, the linguistic difficulty surfaces--the masculine body (le corps) is lesbian. Although in English the title, The Lesbian Body, presents no contradiction, the book is introduced with an author's note that explains the pronoun manipulations that were, in effect, the subject of each of her books--the "motors for which functioning parts had to be designed."
The form of Le Corps lesbien is a cycle of poems rather than a narrative. In almost every poem, the characters, j/e (I) and tu (you) violently tear each other to pieces in the process of love. The violence of this book--which one reviewer called "misanthropic"--is disturbing on a number of levels.
The slashed pronoun j/e embodies the violence of women's entry into language. The dismembering and devouring of the characters are performed with passionate precision: "M/y most delectable one I set about eating you. ... Having absorbed the external part of your ear I burst the tympanum, I feel the rounded hammerbone rolling between m/y lips, m/y teeth crush it, I find the anvil and the stirrup-bone, I crunch them...."
But perhaps most disturbing for general readers--and some lesbian readers--is the book's powerful eroticism and intimacy.
In 1976, Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes was published in France. Written in collaboration with Sande Zeig, it was translated by the authors as Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary.
In contrast to The Lesbian Body, Lesbian Peoples has a light touch. It is an imaginative take on history that chronicles by keywords, sometimes in strange juxtaposition, the passage of a mythic people to the utopian "Glorious Age."
As much a period piece as a rewriting of historical periodization, key figures of lesbian feminism make cameo appearances. Jill Johnston's "Lesbian Nation" is cited as the last nation to exist before the beginning of the Glorious Age.
Wittig's most recent book of fiction was published in France in 1985 as Virgile, Non, and two years later in English as Across the Acheron. Elements of all of her previous writing are present: parody--of Dante's Divine Comedy; revolutionary utopia--paradise is across the Golden Gate Bridge; and Wittig's unconventional namings--the central character is none other than "Wittig."
This book is the least well-known of her published works, perhaps because the idea that lesbians (and women) existing in the "straight" world are living in a kind of purgatory is not as popular as it once was or, perhaps, because this is the least "universal" of her books.
Monique Wittig immigrated to the United States in 1976. Once in North America, she turned her pen to theoretical essays on feminism, language, and literature. In these essays, mostly written in English and published in Feminist Issues, Wittig developed her ideas about what she described as "materialist lesbianism," where lesbians represent the possibility of escaping the category of "woman" by refusing her "role" and rejecting the "economic, ideological, and political power of a man."
In these essays, Wittig also finally began to explain the linguistic manipulations in her complex fictions, with which many readers struggled. Some of these essays, including "One is Not Born a Woman," "The Category of Sex," and "The Mark of Gender," have become canonical in Women's Studies; in the emergent field of Lesbian and Gay Studies, "The Straight Mind" has particular significance. Her essays have recently been collected and published under this title.
On January 3, 2003, Wittig died of a heart attack in Tucson, Arizona, where she had taught in the University of Arizona's Women's Studies Program for twelve years. She is survived by her partner and collaborator, Sande Zeig.
Monique Wittig's linguistic brilliance and political courage made her truly one of the avant-garde. To date, only one book-length study of her work has been published, but the importance of her books and essays for several generations of thinkers in the areas of gender and sexuality will make her the subject of many more.
Sande Zeig is an American film director and writer. She was the partner of late French feminist writer Monique Wittig. She directed the 2000 romantic drama The Girl.
Sande Zeig is from New York. She studied theater in Wisconsin and Paris. In 1975, Zeig was living in Paris, studying mime and teaching karate when she met the writer Monique Wittig. Zeig's 2000 film, The Girl is based on a short story by Wittig. Her 2008 biographical film Soul Masters: Dr. Guo and Dr. Sha follows the work of two Chinese healers, one of whom had previously treated Zeig's father. Zeig is the founder of New York film distribution company Artistic License.
Author: Creet, Julia
Entry Title: Wittig, Monique
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated July 6, 2005
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/wittig_m.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date January 3, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates
The Straight Mind: And Other Essays by Monique Wittig
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press; First Edition edition (February 3, 1992)
Amazon: The Straight Mind: And Other Essays
These political, philosophical, and literary essays mark the first collection of theoretical writing from the acclaimed novelist and French feminist writer Monique Wittig.
The Lesbian Body (Beacon Paperback) by Monique Wittig
Paperback: 165 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press (February 15, 1986)
Amazon: The Lesbian Body
Back in print, this daring novel constitutes a rhapsodic hymn to women's bodies and women's relationships.
"That rare work in fiction . . . the art and the courage are of the highest level." —The Boston Globe
More Real Life Romances at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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