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...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
[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...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
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,...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
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,...
(The entire section is 1410 words.)
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 one foot in a mythic dream, which, I imagine, is the normal childhood practice. She is too positivistic. All the penumbra of childhood emotion, which is so difficult to describe, has been removed from these bright little sentences, which become rather tedious when one realizes that they are not going to have any further dimension. Actually, poetic overtones do occur during adolescence, a homosexual crush develops, and the word opoponax … is used as a kind of numinous term, possibly to signify the terror and delight of sexual desire. But what is faintly sketched in at this late stage ought to have been present from the beginning. I am sure most of us have numinous experiences from the age of three…. However, Mlle. Wittig, like most...
(The entire section is 331 words.)
["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 blueprint for women in the future. These female warriors have a racial-sexual identity: an identity confirmed and enshrined in their myths and history and poetry and religion. (pp. 5, 14)
[They] are seen as United, and it is in this compelling vision of women as a group that the force of the book lies. The intrepid band of schoolgirls (with their increasingly fierce loves and loyalties) whom Monique Wittig made so recognizable in "The Opoponax" are grown up; but they have not been siphoned off into male-orientated love and marriage. For all that they are exotic and barbaric creatures, with their own beautiful and barbarian culture, they are still—for any woman, anyway—familiar. And it is this that makes Monique Wittig at...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
[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 words; after every fifth or sixth passage is a page filled with women's names. Little dialogue, no continuing characters; the women we read about may be the same group throughout or they may be different; the action may take place in one spot or many; the time span may be a few months or many years. Take away all the usual novelistic ways and means and the effect almost certainly will seem as undernourished, as unfree, as the most claustrophobic of first-person novels.
But if there is no plot, there is a central fable, and that gives the book whatever newsworthiness it can claim to have. At a time apparently long after our own the women are trying to work out the terms for their own culture…. Like any revolutionary...
(The entire section is 943 words.)
Laura G. Durand
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 many readers cannot take with genuine artistic seriousness a book whose only male characters are at best of tertiary importance. (p. 71)
And yet a good deal happens in this book without benefit of male presence. We observe the collective, tribal activities of a large number of women who live in a beautiful and colorful setting, never completely described, that is sometimes a Greek island, sometimes, perhaps, a seaside resort, sometimes a futuristic city. The women's existence is both primitive and sophisticated. Their myths, legends, and heroes are entirely female, like their deities. Where female children come from is not clear—whether they are stolen or born to tribal members impregnated in unspecified ways—but a...
(The entire section is 1418 words.)
["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 "the green strings of bile flowing over your breasts." (pp. 18-20)
This very literally misanthropic novel is a series of short, violent invocations of a female body, or fantasies of how one lesbian body might possess and be possessed by another. (p. 20)
This rabid, monotonous book has more to do with intellectual chic than with the women's movement it claims to speak for. "The body of the text subsumes all the words of the female body," declares Wittig, as though the obsessive naming of parts could end by creating an actual body; but that is just playing at superstition. The body that is so lovingly itemized is not in any case a lesbian body, but a female body named and imagined to give lesbian...
(The entire section is 293 words.)
Mary Beth Pringle Spraggins
[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 themselves. Freudian "theories" of masculine physiological superiority comprise the most important contemporary myth dealt with by Wittig.
Out of the materials of both classical and contemporary myths, Wittig constructs in Les Guérillères a new mythology similar to the one described by Joseph Campbell in Myths To Live By. According to him a new mythology is identical to "… the old, everlasting, perennial mythology, in its 'subjective sense,' poetically renewed in terms neither of a remembered past nor a projected future, but of now … to the waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves…." This new mythology in Les Guérillères twice accomplishes the goal of awakened individuals that Campbell...
(The entire section is 878 words.)