Monique Wittig MARY McCARTHY - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1410 words.)