Monique Wittig 1935?–
Wittig believes that "it is our fiction that validates us." In her novels Les guérillères and The Lesbian Body she experiments with forming a new mythology for the feminist movement. Most critics considered her novel of childhood, The Opoponax, an important and meaningful technical success.
["The Opoponax"] is a charming feat of virtuosity—a little girl's own view of her unremarkable life from nursery school to high school…. Catherine does not impart abstract sense—and certainly no narrative or causal form—to her experiences. She is interested in what she is interested in—the part in the hair of the girl in front of her—and not in the aims or motivations of adults, teachers and parents, who seem to her more like forces of nature than fellow-beings. But these technical procedures, which look like innovations, are really instances of a traditional artistic virtue—economy of means. The reader has no trouble following Catherine's growth through her studies … or through her extracurricular activities…. Catherine's life is childhood's characteristic, comic mixture—passion and incompetence. She keeps discovering and rediscovering the unmanageability of everything, including oneself…. (pp. 66, 68)
The absence of overt emotion helps the book achieve its splendid effect, which is childhood, in all its grubby innocence, portrayed as silent-screen comedy—kinetic, surprising, and, even in misfortune, carefree. Would it be fair to say that this motion picture of childhood lacks profundity, as it lacks completeness? Or is Miss Wittig's own profundity her implication that there is a lot less profundity in childhood than other writers descry? Or does she exemplify Valéry's remark that clarity and profundity are just two literary effects? I cannot decide. "The Opoponax," at any rate, is wild, giddy fun, the fun of being—or, better, watching—a child, and, of course, the fun of stunning literary bravura. (p. 68)
Naomi Bliven, "Daphne in India, Catherine in France," in The New Yorker (© 1966 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 42, No. 19, June 2, 1966, pp. 66, 68.∗
[In "The Opoponax" Monique Wittig] has made what can only be called a brilliant re-entry into childhood.
In both form and content, "The Opoponax" is a revolutionary story. It is not told in the first person singular. The child who tells it refers to herself by her full name, Catherine Legrand. Yet it is her own story seen through her own eyes as she lives it…. [The passage of time in the novel] is not recorded according to an adult conception of days and weeks and months and years.
It is Catherine Legrand's time. It unfolds like an accordion, still tightly pleated at the start and then flattening out wider and wider as her physical and mental capacities stretch to meet experience….
Who is this Catherine Legrand in whose life we become so immersed? Like every child, she is a highly individual person…. No one else sees the woods, the animals, the flowers, the frozen puddles, the colors of the sky or the other children (of whom there are many, all equally alive) or the various teachers, as Catherine Legrand sees them, her eyes being, like the eyes of each of us, unique. Yet the rush of her impressions, succeeding one another with lightning rapidity (and unbroken by conventional punctuation or paragraphing which the author astonishingly and for the most part successfully ignores), has the rhythm and helter-skelter and vitality of every awakening mind.
These impetuous, brook-like...
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Monique Wittig's tremendous power over words comes through unimpeded [in The Opoponax]…. The vivid canvas of colors, forms, and movements conveys an immediacy of sensation in which every attempt has been made to avoid perception. Everything happens in the present tense from the time the group of children first enter primary school until we find them lodged in a boarding school….
The assumption which underlies the uninterrupted flow of words is that children see but do not judge, feel nothing save sensory states…. The "you" by which the French on is translated has a disconcerting tendency to involve the reader. You are asked to believe … that youngsters can be exposed to a series of funerals of persons close to them, and yet not shed a tear …, that they can constantly observe actions in the most minute and vivid manner without feeling the need to put some meaning into them, that to them nature is as impersonal as the fossilized fauna and flora scrutinized by a geologist.
I am willing, sadly, to accept The Opoponax as the world of a particular, arid conscience. But what is disturbing is the implication that this is the way youth sees the world….
It must have been difficult for Monique Wittig to stay on the surface of consciousness; it is to be hoped that in the future which stretches before her so promisingly she will cease to distort her obvious talent for writing, and, by providing richer sustenance to her keen powers of observation, steer clear of the literary wastelands.
Anna Balakian, "Child's World without Wonder," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 27, July 2, 1966, p. 33.
The Opoponax, I suspect, is the result of an accidental discovery in the laboratory of the novel. The young Monique Wittig … may have been experimenting with the problem of the narrator in a fictional work: what we call or used to call the point-of-view. The Jamesian problem. Most western novelists today accept as a matter of course the Jamesian solution. James's formula ('Dramatise, dramatise!') has meant the end of auctorial description, including the analysis of motives and behaviour-'psychology'….
The obligation we feel to dramatise or mediate … has made the novel a cumbersome affair. It has seemed to impose the ugly flashback, since the past, by present convention, can only exist in someone's memory—not objectively in history nor in the author's private knowledge….
In France, the nouveau roman is using the flashback too, though in a somewhat more arty way, borrowing from films, the zero point being reached by an amnesiac narrator. But there is one modern French novel that has got rid of the flashback without 'regressing' to earlier modes. I am thinking of Nathalie Sarraute's Les Fruits d'Or, which tells the story of a hero—in this case a book—starting with the beginning and ending with the end. It is pure linear narration, and yet the author is absent; the reader gleans what is happening from a series of, as it were, overheard conversations…. By perfection of form, concordance of means and ends, the book (in my opinion) became a classic the day it was published. Here the convention of the hidden author and the mystifications surrounding the point-of-view suddenly make sense. (p. 90)
With Monique Wittig, something similar seems to have happened. A technical experiment, asking an epistemological question about the nature and limits of memory, has led to a genuine finding. At first sight, The Opoponax can be placed in a familiar category: the autobiographical novel of childhood…. There are no flashbacks. It is all, you could say, a flashback, since the author is not recounting the story but reliving it sharply in memory. But she is reliving it as if it had happened to somebody else, which in fact is the case. Catherine Legrand is not a fictional alias or transparent disguise for Monique Wittig: she is a conjecture about an earlier Monique Wittig. It is clear that between 'I' remembering and my previous self, there is a separation, as in the Einsteinian field-theory, so that if I write 'I' for both, I am slurring over an unsettling reality. But how to state that uncertainty in narrative terms?
Monique Wittig's solution was to desubjectify Catherine Legrand to the limit of possibility, so that she would become a kind of on dit, a generally accepted rumour. If 'I' is ruled out as the appropriate pronoun, 'she' is not wholly exact either for an indeterminate being who is not the author any more and not, on the other hand, a fictional heroine. The Opoponax meets the difficulty by opening a cleavage in Catherine Legrand, between a 'she' and an 'on'—an indefinite pronoun.
Unfortunately, this word is not translatable into English, and the translator's 'you' could hardly be more wrong most of the time. 'You' is personal and familiar; it is the word you use when talking to yourself…. On is impersonal, indefinite, abstract, neutral, guarded. It is myself and everybody...
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Mlle. Wittig [in L'Opoponax] certainly manages to render the sensation of childhood as a kaleidoscopic flurry of incident, devoid of any general principles and which the child, inevitably, sees as it were from the underside, since the process of growing up consists precisely in getting one's head, to some slight extent at least, above events. Catherine Legrand makes no overall sense of her experiences…. My reservation about L'Opoponax … is that the jumble of vivid, physical descriptions of childhood is not enough, because I seem to remember that, in childhood, plotlessness on one level was accompanied by a constant endeavor to create a plot on another level. Mlle. Wittig's child does not live with...
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["Les Guérillères"] is perhaps the first epic celebration of women ever written. And yet it seems natural, not bizarre.
Of course, "Les Guérillères" treads a path between serious epic celebration and satire of the entire form—but, so deftly is the novel written, this ambiguity does nothing to diminish its impact. One of its strengths, indeed, is that—like "The Opoponax"—it contrives to work on several levels. It is a satiric commentary on man's constant use of literary forms for self aggrandizement; and on current Women's Liberation arguments in which men feature as the imperialists and women as the colonized natives. Yet it is also a hymn of praise to women of astonishing conviction, a...
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[It may] be that the refusal of Wittig's Les Guérillères to act like much of a novel at all will be taken as a sign of its newness and originality. The book is about a time when women live as guerrillas, by themselves, fighting men, seeking a new age; its techniques are mostly impersonal and their aim is to achieve something like epic distance and grandeur. But though the idea of such a book may well raise high hopes in at least some readers, the book itself turns out to be, sadly, oddly, at times almost maddeningly, quite dull. (p. 23)
[Les Guérillères] has no confining or even definite point of view, and the form is simply a series of passages, ranging in length from thirty to 500...
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No male figure is more traditional—literarily, psychologically, historically—than the epic hero. Thus it is all the more surprising and stimulating to see the heroic mode used in Les Guérillères to express the feminist point of view, and to see, moreover, that the work succeeds brilliantly on several levels….
Ignoring or flouting literary fashion, the book combines atemporal anachronism with anthropological description and epic pastiche with dead seriousness of tone. Add such themes as bloody warfare between men and women and poetic celebration of the female genitalia, and the mixture is, for some readers, too rich and strange. The central problem, however, remains the simple fact that...
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["The Lesbian Body" is] interestingly ill-conceived…. It comes under the heading of "lesbian texts" produced, so Miss Wittig's ranting foreword has it, "in a context of total rupture with masculine culture, texts written by women exclusively for women, careless of male approval…." "The Lesbian Body" is a rupture with something, certainly, not least the homelier conventions of femininity. "Say your farewells …," the narratrix cautions her lesbian lover in the very first line, "to what they, the women, call affection tenderness or gracious abandon," which is a rare understatement, because no sooner is it goodbye to all that than it's hello to "yellow smoking intestines spread in the hollow of your hands" and to...
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[By using myth in Les Guérillères Monique Wittig] transcends the twentieth century and envisions a utopia in which old myths have been adapted to achieve new ends. By this use of myth Wittig makes two important points about women in the twentieth century: they are trapped by myth, yet they can find a mythic means of escape from entrapment.
Two principal types of myth—classical and contemporary—are used by Wittig. By "classical" myths I mean legends from Greek and Roman antiquity, folktales, and Bible stories. By "contemporary" I refer to the kinds of myths described by Roland Barthes in Mythologies, those cultural—sometimes class-associated—myths by which humans define...
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