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Nicole Brossard 1943–
French Canadian poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Brossard's life and career through 1997.
Nicole Brossard played a pivotal role in the development of a postmodern literary movement in Quebec which focused on gender and language. As co-founder of the avant-garde periodical La Barre du Jour and the feminist collective Les Têtes de Pioche, Brossard helped to create a dialogue in Quebec poetics which affected a generation of writers. Eventually Brossard gained an international reputation as a feminist theorist as her works were translated into English, German, Italian, and Spanish.
Born in Montreal, Brossard attended several different schools, including the University of Montreal. In 1965, she published her first group of poems in Trois—a collection of poetry which also featured Michel Beaulieu and Micheline de Jordy. That same year she co-founded La Barre du Jour, a literary journal devoted to the fusion of social and political analysis and the creative process. She taught from 1969 to 1971 before devoting herself to writing full time. Brossard's published work includes poetry, novels, and essays on feminist and literary theory. In 1976, she co-founded the radical feminist newspaper Les Têles de Pioche. In 1991 she received the Athanase-David Prize of Quebec for her body of work.
Brossard's career has had three distinct phases. In the 1960s she attempted to overcome the tendency in Quebec nationalist poetry to portray women as a mere representation of the land. The main focus of her poetry was similar to that of other 1960s writers in Quebec: portraying the country and its spatial features. However, Brossard took a new approach by using the human body and physiological features to map out history. She used language as a tool to explore new dimensions of being. In her poems, Brossard disrupted traditional rules of language, including syntax and French gender rules. In the 1970s, the second phase of her career, Brossard continued to write poetry, but also began experimenting with the novel. Her Un livre (1970; A Book) examines the construction of characters and plot as surface constructions ac-cessible only through the acts of reading and writing. To Brossard, literature does not need to represent reality, but takes on a life of its own. Asserting that writing is research, therefore a hypothesis-generating act, not a reality-representing one. Brossard combines fiction and theory in her poetry and novels. She believes in the power of language to liberate the individual and to restructure social institutions. Le Centre Blanc (1978) is characteristic of the poetry of this period, with syntactical subversion and a lack of traditional grammatical order. The third phase of her career tackles issues of sexual difference. The focus of Brossard's work has increasingly narrowed to the topics of feminist and lesbian politics. L'Amèr (1977; These Our Mothers) is both a search for new language and an exploration of the responsibilities of motherhood. This work, in conjunction with Le Sens apparent (1980; Surface of Sense) and Amantes (1980; Lovhers), attempts to overcome patriarchal censorship and celebrate a lesbian Utopia. Amantes is a collection of poetry dealing with lesbian love and the emotion of thought. Picture Theory (1982) reworks these ideas in a complex theoretical way. By developing combinations of meanings, the reader must engage in the creation of the text. Le Désert Mauve (1987: The Mauve Desert) takes up the issue of translation of language, and how translation is an act of transformation.
Some reviewers of Brossard's work complain that it is too complicated and difficult to understand. Critics assert that the intellectual nature and difficulty of Brossard's work makes it elitist and inaccessible to the masses. Marguerite Anderson admits that "while reading Nicole Brossard is invigorating, it is not easy." Much of the discussion surrounding Brossard's work centers on her theories of politics and literature. Louise H. Forsyth states that "Brossard writes with the assumption that both the personal and the poetic are political." Many reviewers point out Brossard's unique subversion of traditional syntax and narrative technique. Whether in complete agreement with her politics or her approach, most reviewers agree with Brossard's contributions to the literature of Quebec. Forsyth asserts Brossard's importance, saying, "Her works and activities have served to redefine Quebec letters and culture so effectively that her voice and the voices of many other women speaking and writing autonomously out of women-centered space are being heard and heeded."
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Mordre en sa chair [To Bite the Flesh] (poetry) 1966
L'Echo bouge beau (poetry) 1968
Suite logique (poetry) 1970
Un Livre [A Book] (novel) 1970
Sold-out, étreinte/illustration [Turn of a Pang] (novel) 1973
Mécanique jongleuse [Daydream Mechanics] (poetry) 1973
French Kiss: étreinte-exploration (novel) 1974
La Partie pour le tout (poetry) 1975
La Nef des sorcières [with Marie-Claire Blais, Marthe Blackburn, Luce Guilbeault, France Theoret, Odette Gagnon, and Pol Pelletier; A Clash of Symbols] (plays) 1976
L'Amèr: ou, le chapitre effrité [These Our Mothers, or The Distintegrating Chapter] (novel) 1977
Le Centre blanc: poèmes 1965–1975 (poetry) 1978
D'Arc de cycle la derive (poetry) 1979
Amantes [Lovhers] (poetry) 1980
Le Sens apparent [Surface of Sense] (novel) 1980
Picture Theory (novel) 1982
Double Impression: poèmes et textes 1967–1984 (poetry) 1984
Journal intime, ou, Voilà donc un manusrit (novel) 1984
L'Aviva (poetry) 1985
Domaine d'écriture (poetry) 1985
La Lettre aérienne [The Aerial Letter] (essays) 1985
Le Désert Mauve [Mauve Desert] (novel) 1987
Installations (poetry) 1989
A Tout regard (poetry) 1989
Typhon gru (poetry) 1990
Langues obscures [Obscure Tongues] (poetry) 1992
Green Might of Labyrinth Park (poetry) 1993
Baroque d'aube [Baroque Dawn] (novel) 1995
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SOURCE: "Subversion Is the Order of the Day," in Essays on Canadian Writing, Nos. 7/8, Fall, 1977, pp. 17-25.
[In the following essay, Bayard compares Brossard's earlier work to her later writing, tracing her growth as a writer.]
It has been said about Québécois writers that they start writing earlier and produce more than their English Canadian or European counterparts, as if the inner pressures and the cultural motivations which sustain them are intensely productive. Whether or not this generalization is valid, it holds true for Nicole Brossard. In 1965, when she was 22, her first volume of poetry, Aube à la saison, was published, and in that same year she founded La Bane du Jour; and her next, Mordre en sa chair, came out the following year.
It is surprising to examine these early works today in the light of her later, more daring, and complex avant-garde experiments, for they seem bent upon a different quest, less looped into their own linguistic movements and more interested in mapping out their spatial territory, their "appartenance".
This term, from appartenir or to belong to, to be owned by, to be possessed by, is essential to an understanding of the middle 50's and early 60's in Quebec. The poetic output from this period is constantly preoccupied with embodying a country and its spatial features. In his long poem Arbres, Paul-Marie Lapointe not only enumerates all the trees of Quebec but through them affirms a specific space, the specific features of the land. Jean-Louis Major refers to this process in the following way:
En un sens, le verbe dire est premier, mais par un autre biais il a—avec toutes les fonctions qui s'y apparentent—valeur de naissance et de fondation; dans la poésie québécoise, la parole participe d'ailleurs à la structure sémantique de la naissance.
It has been said more particularly of Gaston Miron and Paul Chamberland that their poetry at that time was "La recherche ardente d'un mode d'habiter" and that they had to assume the ownership of their land by naming it, by giving linguistic weight to its physical features.
This need to describe a territory in order to define it, this hunger for a word which is capable of giving flesh to the Québécois genesis, is still present in Brossard's first two volumes. It does not have the rage of Paul Chamberland's Génèses or the passionate minuteness of Paul-Marie Lapointe's Arbres. Clearly, this territory has already been charted by other explorers. Brossard knows that she comes after them, that she cannot duplicate their achievements. Thus there is no plea for a passionate assertion of space-time structures in her lines. Instead, what she sets out to map in 1966 is not Quebec's territory but the human body. "les yeux collent à la peau … / ou étire le ventre de l'angoisse; / il fait brume à la moëlle du coeur; / le feu blanchit l'épiderme." History or time takes on physiological features, it is made flesh, given corporeal pleasure, pain, veins, blood, hair and muscles: "tout demain a des ciselures sur la peau." Thus it is not surprising to see her look for a face, a human face, when she needs a mirror for the world:
sur miroir insolite de visage
saltimbanque et planète
mosaïque de sensations
à perte de vue découpée
or to observe the way she refers to her belly as a place for the day to sink:
il croule en mon ventre
ce jour pendu à sa racine
The uninitiated reader whose eye jumps from these poems to her more complex, illogical, semantically and grammatically ambiguous constructions in La Partie pour le tout will be puzzled. The key to a perceptive reading of Brossard's latest writings is to be found in a number of articles published in La Barre du Jour between 1968 and 1970, as well as in a manifesto which came out in La Presse in 1970. These writings illuminate the ideological and esthetic milieu out of which Brossard comes.
In the view of Francois Charron and Roger Des Roches, the changes in contemporary literature arise from their denunciation of the text as a mirror, as a reflection of the objective world. What they advocate, instead, is that full recognition be given to the text-matter, to its phonemes, linguistic components, sounds and signs. The vital components of the literary text, as they see it, are the linguistic tensions among its visual, graphic and sonic elements, and the way these are resolved. Charron and Des Roches envision these changes as the struggle of materialistic philosophy against idealism, a productive-transformativeprocess which does not sublimate the poetic act or reduce the text to what they call "un simple reportage … la description d'un match".
Therefore her poetry, as in Le Centre blanc, and her novels, in French Kiss, do not have to reproduce or reconstruct reality as we know it; they grow and exist on their own, each sentence organically growing and feeding the next, one word, or even one phoneme, calling for another.
The reader who enjoys poetry but does not find the arid lands of theory attractive will probably be puzzled by a first reading of Le Centre blanc. Two main factors may arouse uneasiness. First of all, the syntactical foundations of this text have exploded into disconnected units. Verb, predicate, article, adverb—each element has been displaced, or misplaced, and even an obstinate reader, tempted to re-establish this order, will fail to do so. There is no grammatically sound order; her lines are all the more beguiling in that they invite error by first making us expect a poetic but syntactically safe structure:
romprou la tension très difficile de savoir,
ailteurs qu'en ses muscles ceux-ci tendus,
à l'extrême force puisque modification
l'ordre des contraintes n'étante plus le même
l'équilibre perdu toute concentration cependant vibrante la tension ou quand l'attention est soutenue plusiers fois systématique
dans une seule tentative l'attention portée
versdans énonçant l'intelligence de chaque chacun
Conjunctions and adverbs linking clauses are missing, or when present, are used in such a way as to make them look obsolete. All punctuation has been banished; the reader becomes a prey to great uncertainties as the visual necessity to discern logical clusters of words becomes too pressing.
This shaken syntax produces a variety of possible word-clusters, henceforth a range of possible meanings. Quite simply, the semantic direction of this text is closely dependent upon the number of units one chooses to permit in a given clause, upon the way the eye uses blanks or ignores them.
The tense rectangular paragraphs in Le Centre blanc are a labyrinth full of holes, blanks, thick word-clusters which take the reader close to the edge of meaning while losing him in a syntactical maze out of which no Ariadne's tricks can free him. Discomfort arises not so much from the negation of old expectations as from the constant illusion that some meaning will emerge. And, as the eye is led from trap to trap, it becomes apparent that this is the only finality of the text: to lure us and to abandon us. The reader's uneasiness may take him in two opposite directions. He may find that such discontinuity demands too much of a leap, or he may accept the game with its alternatives, its illogical patterns. Similar alternatives emerge from her novels. French Kiss is particularly illustrative of this new fiction which buries characters, their psychology, and their tensions in order to explore the fine movements of their muscles, the smell of their pores, the texture of their hair. The novel's focus is upon objects, sensations, and the way they hit the eye or start chain reactions of varying orders and intensities in all five senses. But the narrative flow also turns in upon itself:
Le bleu du ciel, topographie, courbe d'arc-en-ciel.
Le bleu du ciel tautologique et obsédant (pluriel: bleu/ciel).
Le décor est à abolir
Parchemin, on n'oserait / D / écrire: réanimer à la
occasion que l'on provoque. Narrateur / détonateur.
On m'entend venir de loin, délire conique, on me
voit venir en pelisse de louve, prête comme une
narratrice à bondir sur tout sujet, toute bonbance.
There are in fact two narrators somewhat at odds with each other here: the "narrator/detonator", an obvious intruder who mocks writing by showing us its mechanisms—stratagems, artifices, nuts and bolts; and the "neutral receptor", a resounding board for all the sensations crowding the text. Narrator no. 1 exerts censorial control over no. 2, but it is difficult to assess how much or when. As we are being taken from street to room to bed to ceiling, the inevitability of this narrative wandering is as absolute as it is arbitrary. Yet we never actually know what the other possibilities are, or would have been. All we know is that no. 1 is energized by syntactical rules:
Chevauche la syntaxe. Ça m'incite et dicte une suite très matinale encore à cette heure-ci qu'il est long le pont à traverser.
Even he feels betrayed and/or manipulated by a huge reservoir of obscure forces behind him:
Les yeux se dérobent. Une tradition, une lecture, des ancêtres dont aucun narrateur ne peut être certain.
More often than not he is the great manipulator, the magician who stops the other's (no. 2) tricks. As the text verges on the erotic, he moves in and promptly stops all proceedings:
On pourrait jouer aux échecs, aux dames, au no, au domino [….] faire l'amour. [….] Camomille, j'ai très envie de caresser tes seins. Rideau fictif.
Derrière la fiction, le miroir, le verre et le tain, Camomille et Lucy comme projection holographique, visages tridimentionnels sur le rideau, l'écran qui révèle le plaisir et ne le cache point comme un pan d'ombre, une circonstance irrecevable.
Brossard has said of French Kiss that it offered her the opportunity to let her imagination and her senses go unfettered, that anything could be said, played with, thrown on the white page, and experimented with. Even more than syntactical rules it is the false order of fictions which is broken here: what the eye sees, the tongue narrates. Logic and inner coherence have been dispersed to the four winds of narrative subversion. The narrator is as unreliable as his svntax.
With the poetry in Mécanique jongleuse and La Partie pour le tout, she stylistically remains on the offensive. Syntax, grammar, lay-out, punctuation, spelling, omissions, all concur, to different degrees, to upset the rules and give us a provocative text, lashed by blanks and typographical variations, ambiguous hyphens, brackets and parentheses.
Although referentiality is reduced to a minimum in these texts, there are nevertheless sexual images, the erotic metaphors which Brossard weaves through her precarious syntactical scaffoldings. Literary eroticism becomes a linguistic tension between the sign on the page and sexual satisfaction.
If there are dialectically opposed movements, each still reveals itself as game-like, playful, gratuitous, intensely enjoyable exercises.
l'épiderme une grammaire gratuite
de silence toile d'impressions de
feu: l'artifice un parcours
de derme s'en détache les voyelles
les éponges douces sur l'épi beau
There is a complicity, but also an ironic sense of defiance, between the two movements, as if they were almost bent on similar ends and yet wanted to destroy each other at the same time:
la vague retracée surface lubrifiante dénude son
qu'elle remue sur vos hanches endoréiques sans
qu'il soit de
comparaison mais de sous-entendu
Stylistic figures and sexual movements occasionally—but only occasionally—become one:
percevant du domaine textuel
est-ce transparence ou plutôt écran
et trace de mauve et d'humide désir jouxtant
là au centre et cerne de moi
alors que dure en la démemce
ce connaître éprouvé vacillant
avance et s'étend presque comme jailli
le blanc de toi
This new writing tolls the death of the old humanism, as Brossard's pre-1975 writings show; but this death takes on new significance in the light of her growth as a feminist writer. For if new writing has no social responsibility, how are we to read Brossard's latest yet unpublished work L'Amèr? Neither her two novels Sold-out or French Kiss or her later volumes of poetry Méconique jongleuse and La Partie pour le tout allows a challenge of her formalistic positions through ideological necessity or social responsibility. L'Amèr deals with both the theory of writing and a woman's daily experience. The conflicts here are raw: they brutally expose the contradictions between a search for a new language and the responsibilities of motherhood. One finds in L'Amèr the need for a linguistic exploration as well as a brutal awakening to pain, guilt and fear:
j'écris, ma fille a la fièvre
si je continuais d'écrire elle pourrait en mourir.
Brossard practises little or no censorship here. The fears, the anger, the ugly frustrations, the guilt-patterns which underline a mother and child relationship are all left bare for other women's eyes to see and recognize—if they have the courage to do so. L'Amèr is, according to Brossard's own words, "une fiction du privé" where she opens all the taboos—sexual love between women, "les mères enlacées" and the hidden truths, that of the milk turned sour in women's breasts, "le lait est vert, il a sûri".
But L'Amèr is not only an act of courage about an era of experience which had to be poetically explored, it is also an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable poles of political commitment and esthetic statement. Brossard does not want to give up her new awareness of herself as a feminist and a mother, any more than she rejects the quest for a new idiom, fresh, unfettered and frightening. She does not envision the praxis of political work as destructive of poetic intuitions for, as she says in L'Amèr, "ce qui devient réalité politique est influencé par le fictif". The role of fiction is to continue shaking the pillars of the old order, as liberation goes through the destruction of syntax and phallocentrism. One's own militancy is to be witnessed not only on picket lines and women's collectives but also on the page, squarely facing the print and phonemes yet to be born.
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SOURCE: "Interview with Nicole Brossard on Picture Theory." in Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 47, 1983, pp. 122-35.
[In the following interview, Brossard discusses the form and major themes of her novel Picture Theory, and its relationship to her other work.]
[Canadian Fiction Magazine:] Firstly, why did you return to an English expression by an Austrian writer, Wittgenstein, in a Québecois novel that deals with language?
[Brossard:] In Amantes, I had already used the expression "Picture theory" for its intriguing, aesthetic qualities, if I may use those terms. It's an expression that fascinated, seduced me. On the one hand because of the word "picture," and on the other because of the word "theory." Little by little I got to know the works of Wittgenstein. So "Picture theory" could be rendered by "picture of reality" or "painting of reality." I don't think the word "theory" can be translated by the same word in French, not in that expression anyway. I was intrigued and probably got my first inspiration after reading: "one can not express reality, one can only show it." That's why I wrote in the last chapter: "Language is a spectacle of what we can not imagine as such." The only way I could express the spectacle of the unthinkable was by the grammatical intervention of the feminine plural. I am inspired by the works of Wittgenstein in much the same way as by the works of Barthes, among others. So much reading has stimulated my research, my examination of language and its fictitious reality. For instance, I am interested in tautology and its relation to sense and nonsense, and I intend to work on that among other things as a follow-up to the paper I presented at the conference on "The emergence of culture in the feminine." as well as on the reading of the works of Gertrude Stein, which function according to that principle. Wittgenstein is important as a stimulus support, but so is the idea of the hologram, which applied to writing prompts me to want to explore a word, an idea, a concept in order to grasp all its dimensions. Just as I have to explore my own subjectivity.
In the whole of your works, however, this is still an important innovation: for the first time, you haven't invented It all yourself That brings us back to the intertextuality of the title, which may be metonymical in relation to the workings of your text. One could also emphasize the fact that Wittgenstein didn't choose the titles of any of his books.
But when you talk of borrowing, you mustn't forget that French Kiss is a ready-made expression, as are Un livre, Sold-out, and Suite logique.
Let us move on to the two quotations you use as an epigraph to your novel. The quotation from Wittgenstein in a literal translation might read: "What can be said, can only be said by means of the sentence, and so nothing necessary to the comprehension of all the sentences, can be said." Does this imply a failure of language?
Not a failure; to quote again from Wittgenstein: "The world is everything that happens." One could also say: the sentence is everything that happens. And that surely links up with what I was saying about "Picture theory"—one can not express, one can only show. I would even add: one can not express, one can only write. In that sense it is necessary for the understanding of the word "show." I've continually been playing with enigmas, of which the first and greatest is: how to make a woman appear, how to "show" her through whom anything can happen. This is doubtless why the idea of the hologram is so important in this book: for what is a hologram if not a visibly fictitious reality? And that is the question I asked myself to see if I wasn't, in my turn, going to make another woman appear fictitious. When I want to make a woman appear real. But still, I wasn't able to remove all the images that I had around the hologram and it may well be that without these images, I would not have been able to portray in words her through whom anything can happen. I wanted, at all costs, to avoid repeating that the first woman is a mother. Am I answering the question?
Yes, in as far as you say you want to "show." But this sentence is very striking at the beginning of the hook. It is difficult to integrate with the rest. For the moment, there is still a barrier.
The sentences follow one another and each one creates the whole of the plan by showing the other sentences and being shown by them. Could one understand the whole plan if one expressed it in a single sentence as plan? Each sentence is part of the plan and makes the last chapter, which is the hologram, plausible. The whole book is structured so as to arrive at the writing of this Hologramme. To me, Picture Theory is a novel that I wrote with the feeling of having a three-dimensional consciousness, that is, at a certain point, especially in chapter 4 and even throughout the writing of the text, I had the feeling that for the first time I was experiencing the aerial vision that I've already talked about in other works. I was seeing immediately the semantic, syntactic, grammatical and acoustic effect. At the time of writing this novel I had the feeling of an absolutely extraordinary synthesis. This synthesis was accompanied by an enigma, a feeling of strangeness, just as there is a feeling of strangeness when one sees a hologram. It is "obvious," one sees the object, one knows how the image is produced, but one can't get rid of the feeling of total illusion. Effect, feeling, or emotion cause the resurgence of the enigma or the strangeness that I felt throughout the writing of Picture Theory, while still having the most acute sense of synthesis and precision. I hope the novel will be read as I wrote it, in a continuous to and fro between the pages.
In that sense Picture would be like the illustration paving the way by various means to finally arrive at a definition, a "showing" so that this woman manages, as the last sentence of your book puts it: "in the total illusion of abundance to claim to be perfectly readable."
Yes, but at the same time these are not stages in the sense that "because I know A I will know B, because I know B I will know C." It is quite complex: these are not explanatory or demonstrative markers that work in any linear way (although in certain details or fragments there is some linearness which dissolves completely at the end of the last chapter). I think we have to talk in terms of sentences rather than in terms of stages or milestones. In the term of a sentence keeping in mind both the singular and the plural of "term," could also have been the title of Picture Theory.
Can one say that the repetition and metaphorical use of definitions in the novel have created a sort of hologram, the portrait of this woman one is trying to show, in a fictitious relationship, of course?
I would hope so. I try to portray this woman by considering all subjectivities as well as my own. The choice of one word over another serves to define or to image the logic of the text. For instance, when I say that Sarah Stein is listening to a recording of Schumann. I had at first written Schubert, but logic demanded Schumann because of the sound "shoe" and "man" since the expression the heel of man appears often in the text. It is the text itself that structures its system of images and meaning.
There is also a sort of repetition, a "logical series" in the constant presence of the city. How is this expressed in the novel?
The word city actually has two meanings: the place, and that links up with the feeling one has of life amid the noises and the bodies, the feeling of the place, a sort of cultural sensuality; and then, of course, the city as the business centre, which evokes the institutions. The first chapter, entitled L'Ordinaire, introduces the city by describing it in, and through the concept of darkness (for instance: the subway, the elevator, the black-out of New York, the bars, the entrance halls of the Hotel), the blackness here being associated with the patriarchy, not in contrast to white, but as the absence of light. In the second chapter, which in fact becomes Book One, one enters into the light, supported by a vocabulary heavy in the symbolist tradition: forest, water, sea, angel, helmet, etc. The city, then, is especially evident in L'Ordinaire, but it appears again in chapter 4, La Pensée. Here I am concerned with two things: the city where the writing is taking place (Montreal) and the writing table. The author returns to her writing table and the city is born in the fiction as it develops. Un livre and French Kiss both had similar chapters dealing with the city. I have the impression that with Picture theory (this is what I felt while I was writing) I have produced a synthesis of all the novels I have written. A synthesis of what is working plurally within me.
Where does the first sentence come from: "I am exercising my faculties of synthesis"? It echoes le Sens apparent, Amantes and L'Amèr. The last sentence of L'Amèr here becomes concrete.
We mustn't leave out Un livre, because I believe that everything I consent to as well as everything I reject at a textual level is expressed in condensed form in this book.
In this novel the city is more than just a force—there are also privileged places where privileged things happen Often a kind of homosexuality is connoted. It is striking that the more the characters are in a fringe area inside the city, the more the women-sentences seem free and light—on the island, south of Cape Cod for example. Things are less rushed, less "blacked-out" than in New York. Even at the level of the writing—when the women are around the table one feels a certain freedom in the style and wonders why this is not the case in New York?
The city-centre is homo-ideological, the city is homo-sexist; the island is Utopian, the island is the place of replenishment. But what interests me in the city as well as on the island is that people are thinking. That is why, in all my books, novels anyway, there is always a table. A writing table and/or a restaurant table where people are engaged in discussions while eating, drinking, smoking. Inside, outside around a table. In my work there is always a table and a street. Basically, the places mentioned in the city are almost always mentioned in reference to my view of writing, my desire to write, or to an actualization of the writing. For example, the third chapter is set on an island, but one can also say that the heart of the chapter is set around the table when the five women come together for their meals. The island is a privileged place because it recalls Utopia and because the imaginary world proceeds both from the Utopia and from the books the women brought with them to the island. As far as the writing is concerned, the city demands elliptical writing—one doesn't want to see everything and one can't see everything given the number of stimuli. On the island, time works differently, and the writing reflects this by its fluidity.
Isn't there some danger of isolation in a mythical or Utopian spot, which is more or less what the desert island is, the setting of the emotion in the third chapter? Isn't emotion always somewhere on the fringe?
The male imagination lacks the ability to conceive that women together could re-invent the world (ideas, emotion, sexuality, creativity, games). This inability rubs off on the female imagination. The island, the Utopian spot, thus becomes a challenge for the imagination, for writing. Emotion becomes civilization: one reads, one thinks, one discusses, one writes, one exchanges. The emotion doesn't go in circles, it does have consequences. Utopia is not a dream, it is an emotion.
Don't you feel you could be criticized for not having seen the emotion in New York?
I don't see how. But one could say: "Isn't there a contradiction: you put the women together and you express emotion, and then return a little later in chapter 4 to say that you know little about emotion?" That's true, but in chapter 4 emotion has taken another meaning; it concerns the individual, the narrator, the woman who is writing and who certainly wouldn't be were she not emotion itself. What interests her in emotion is the idea of emotion, the process of emotion. She gives up the emotion of the spoken word in order to write. If she didn't the writing would not be emotion. As for suffering, which she also claims to know little about, this must be seen as a strategic lie that refers us once again to the writing. I know that for many women suffering is at the root of their writing; for me, writing is at the root of writing. That can be neither shown nor is it said.
It must have been impossible to use a setting other than this isolated island for the conversation, the creation of the text, the words and the language, for the emotional creation as well as the definitions (all this filtered by a woman's vision) so that women might isolate themselves to rediscover themselves, to reformulate themselves, in women concepts.
I think this is a reference to what one calls privileged places where privileged people are gathered with whom one can go the farthest distance possible in discussions, thoughts, insofar as one accepts critical and exploratory work. To me, it is clear that women can only be thought by themselves. They must, therefore, avoid anything that acts as a parasite on their thought. Woman's work is produced in chapter I when Florence Derive gives her lecture, but immediately there are distractions. Someone says: "Yes, but men…." There are always interruptions. Discussion does take place, but you can not follow your train of thought. The island, on the other hand, is the place where thought can expand, where time and mental space become other. I say on the island, but I must add "around the table, on the island."
But the real work of research on women and on writing is carried out on this island where the five women meet up, where there is an elaboration, women's words that are neither blocked nor stopped.
Yes, and when the women leave the big house, they are immediately overwhelmed by sexist songs, by the need to negotiate, to deal with the patriarchy; they are caught up again by this atmosphere. Even on the boat, on their arrival, there is a flash: the old reflex, they turn around. They don't just turn toward the flash, but toward the man who is taking the picture. There are all these reminders of the patriarchy. The only place they can really become explorers is around the table on their own. When an anecdote filters in, it is interrupted. For instance, when Oriana tells the story of her life, twelve or fifteen sentences suffice, because for each sentence one can guess the rest.
The concept of abstraction recurs very often in this novel. Perhaps we should talk about it. One particular sentence refers to the relation between emotion and abstraction: "At the source of every emotion, is an abstraction…." And this ends with: "Abstraction is a solution." One thus starts off from an abstraction, which gives rise to an emotion, only to realize that at the end one is returning to the abstraction. Could you elaborate on that?
The word abstraction works just like the title "Picture theory." As a seductive word, a vital enigma. It is linked to the notion of theory, which is also often seen as an abstraction. I see nothing abstract in an abstraction insofar as it is the result of a feeling, an intuition, or an emotion. It is always the result of what appears in the subjectivity of the person who is expressing himself. Abstraction is transcended subjectivity. Once it has been expressed, it becomes the source of emotion because the mystery is resurfacing. Because along the way one forgets one's subjective course. Abstraction is thought-compelling because it is "strangely" familiar. In a word it tells the truth without one really remembering the why. To be afraid of abstraction would be like being afraid of life itself.
One doesn't have all the pieces; one has lost (in the sense of abstracted) some along the way. One only has a conceptualized sign that has lost its subjective embodiment, and given rise to the abstraction….
Little by little, one abstracts the essential from things and from beings. One concentrates on the abstraction becoming motivation and primary motive. In that sense one has lost nothing, but rather eliminated the detailed anecdotes and retained only the idea. This is not easy, but it is exhilarating. That is partly what I mean when I talk of aerial vision and aerial letter. This is something vertiginous, but bedazzling.
Might this word "abstraction" not be the new link with the other books? One suddenly finds this word in the centre, the concrete origin of l'Hologramme. And the hologram one could find at the level of the analysis already in French Kiss, or by allusion in the other texts. In some settings the omnipresence of abstraction as a positive plan, in the general sense, would be something to be avoided. In Picture Theory abstraction is automatically linked to Utopia (and once again the meaning of the word Utopia is altered in relation to Utopia in general, whether one sees it as the Utopia of the counter-culture or as the origin of Utopia). This is where strangely enough the woman appears to exist between abstraction and Utopia. And here is a new link with abstraction, a word that is strictly taboo even among intellectuals, and a notion of Utopia which engenders a definite emotion specific to women in the course of organizing themselves.
I think it is new because here the word is "shown," written. It has its own radiation. I must say this was essential to my plan. For from the real, from reality—for example in the white scene, which is a love scene—I absolutely had to abstract the essential or the light, the aura produced by the two lovers. That is why I end the chapter saying: "we had become vital abstractions." It is only when these women have become abstractions that they can be everything, complete. They can be angels, light, the four elements, etc. I can say that textually, without this scene, I would not have been able to portray "her through whom anything can happen," the woman who "makes contact." In relation to her, the mother is a symbolical by product. Some day one should try to understand why abstraction is so striking to the imagination. I feel that there is something mythical there.
We must talk about integrality and origin, which may have been seen as a passage toward difference.
The notion of completeness and integrity appears in Picture Theory (the woman who appears is complete, inalterable). In Picture Theory there is theoretical work on this question, but it is self-actualized through the fiction. At the origin of words is Man's subjectivity, and as far as we have learned to consume words, we have consumed them with their root. We are now in the process of uprooting ourselves from the subjectivity/objectivity of Man to take root in our own subjectivity that transforms reality. Women have to be at the root of the meaning they give to life, to their lives. Picture Theory is the pleasure of writing, but it is also the question about origin that troubles Claire Derive and the narrator M. V. considerably. In fact, it is the origin of meaning. By what means can one get to the origin of meaning? For life to have a meaning, for life to be accessible by being readable, for it not to be the constant effect of contradiction. To put an end to ambiguity. And that brings us back to the question of sense and nonsense, back to tautology. At the beginning of this novel there is a fundamental question: will the patriarchy take place again? How can we make the word woman be at the root and generate general and specific meaning, be the driving force behind all the reading of all the realities, and plausible at the same time? I would place the turning-point in Skin Screen Utopia when I make this woman appear. I say that this time Claire Derive will speak without an accent to make her through whom anything can happen, appear. I end book 4 with "skin the tongue goes to the brain." For finally this woman has become readable, completely. She has become plausible, readable insofar as she is the creation of a feminine (mine and others) and a feminist subjectivity. She is accessible in the philosophical sense of the word: she can actually become her through whom anything can happen. She can generate abstraction, emotion, vitality, energy, "truth." One can never be complete without first being radically curious about meaning. For women the question of meaning is fundamental because it links with the question of their onto-symbolical existence. For a man, to be or not to be is an incidental phrase because man exists. I would even say he over-exists, he pre-exists through God. For a woman, to be is the question. Thus the fusion of the root and integrality gives the verb to be.
Might there not be another side to concrete abstraction in the dichotomy between an intertextuality with Joyce and the relation with perfectly readable sentences? Usually Joyce is the author who is furthest removed from perfect readability. Might there not be a new synthesis that draws a picture, a new "picture theory"? The reference to Joyce is surprising: why choose Finnegan's Wake if not for the complexity of this novel, a reference to its different styles?
The reference is there. It is like an obsession with a final examination of form and expression, and again also of sense and non-sense. How far can one go with the whole and with detail? One can do almost anything with words. I also thought of Gauvreau; everything retraced as being plausible, letter by letter one can retrace a subjectivity. There is even sense in the nonsense when there is an existential stake. When there is no stake, there are "clownish cats sadly." Writing, when one doesn't think of abandoning it, and I have no intention of that, is its own beginning and end. But an obsession with size must accompany it, an obsession doubtlessly nourished by a who am I in the language that speaks to me internally—by this I don't mean the mother tongue, but a figurative language, so figurative that to live with it, I have to abstract its essential. For Joyce it is Ireland, for me it is Woman. In answer to the question who I am in this language: I am all or nothing. That is why writing exhausts itself at everything, and ends by touching the untouchable body of the language, the grammar. Intertextuality is the memory of the sweat of writing. The sweat that "take pains."
Could one describe this novel as being baroque? One of the characteristics of the baroque is, after all, mobility, changing perspectives.
I couldn't use that term in my plan; it is not one of the dimensions that I am aware of in Picture Theory. I always imagine a great lack of precision in the baroque because of this change in perspective. Whereas with perspective in thought and writing, one always maintains a sense of precision of the image one observes or even of the image one thinks. In an analysis one may see some correspondence with the baroque; but in practice and within the circuit of my imagination the baroque did not serve as an inspiration.
But in the repetition, the plurality, the varying angles, in the question of anamorphosis, one could see the appearance of the woman as a sort of angle. It is interesting that an author doesn't always see all the nays his work can be read. Your resistance to the word baroque is interesting. It is a corpus or an idea from which all women have been removed: there are no famous women architects of the baroque. Perhaps because the baroque is quite near madness, and women, afraid of being surcharged with madness, did not "embark" on the idea of the baroque, while the men do it casually.
I see the baroque as a great exuberance of form and relief. When one works with the hologram, it is the feeling of relief, and not the relief as such, that predominates. It is a game of virtual and real images. Simply the fact of thinking in terms of the hologram and the laser (coherent light) places us in a different relationship with reality, and with forms, which transforms our impression of the world, the knowledge, the learning, the illusion of the world. In terms of energy, this is simple and produces new perspectives and, especially, new dimensions. When one talks about mobility, it would be preferable to use the expression chromatic fringe, that is, the blur of the chromatic fringe. All the references are linked to light, also to scientific dimensions, to work on the use of energy. I think we must be careful not to connote the novel feelings of the 20th and the 21st centuries with other feelings, products of a totally different observation of the body in space, of the eye and consequently of the imagination.
From the perspective of this light, wouldn't the Scène blanche be a libidinous bond, a privileged place?
It is a privileged place that appears in quite an unexpected way. Someone goes to look for a book, and one doesn't know if it is a scene from the book or the white scene on the rug with the arbitrary date May 16. It is a love scene where little of the action is seen or consummated—although I say the opposite in presenting it—a relatively novel scene in our everyday life. It is a love scene, but above all a scene of this light which gives life and completeness, which makes each one of the two women become whole. One witnesses the appearance of the mother, the mirror; one explores nature, the city-centre, the cities through their filled libraries, life, death. One experiences energy in its most concrete, most scientific, most materialized form. It was a desire for synthesis where the whole of life would be given. Everything is concentrated here. These words meant nothing as long as I wasn't writing the text. There again is cliché whose meaning is turned around: it can be a hand that directly touches the breast or the clothing or the genitals. It isn't necessary that this happen very gently to contrast with the cliché of brutality. Anything can happen. There is something else that accompanies this scene: the idea, the abstraction, the concept, everything we experience in real or abstract terms.
Could the Scène blanche be the origin?
Exactly. It is the spiritual birth, which, at that point, can only be expressed by poetry and which, although apart, is all-pervasive. It is a scene of concentration, of meditation, expressions that I use in Amantes.
The scene appears sporadically, especially in the chapter L'Ordinaire, and acts as an important counterpoint allowing the utopia of Skin Screen Utopia to come to light, a counterpoint taken up again in the whole, hut this time as a hope of l'Hologramme come true.
This scene does in fact haunt the whole book. In the first chapter it is already there, almost announced, then it becomes more concrete. Then it is put aside a little, but it actually nourishes the whole text to arrive at myself—writing, to give birth to this woman—not as a mother but as a writer, in a relation to words, in their organization. She can be born, can exist, can take her whole place.
Could this be le Centre blanc of poetry? In the story it would become a Scène blanche?
It is true that le Centre blanc is the first collection I wrote, in the belief that in writing one could express the essential. That one could really say the ultimate about life, that poetry could satisfy the expression of that energy. In Scène blanche it is basically the same process that makes me want to express the essential. Here it occurs between two women and will create words as a result, will give rise to other words which will make this woman appear, at the same time abstract, real, fictitious, concrete and carnal. It is fundamentally the same principle. Just now I said it was the same obsession that gave rise to Un livre, and to the inserts in French Kiss and in Sold-Out. I think the Scène blanche comes from the same search for the essential, the energy of the subject as in le Centre blanc. The same person did write the two texts.
There is something almost subliminal about the story (almost in the perverse sense used in advertising) that treats the women's issue in a new way, and by super imposition, by images like those in the hologram, actually makes us believe in the existence of this utopian testimony about the necessary existence of women in history.
That is a very perverse question. It is true that the word "sub-liminar" has been very important. The question has been there throughout the text. But what does it mean? It means that one has perceived something as a truth and that suddenly one has lost track of what was true (the working of the hologram). However, instead of being in front of us, this truth is in our heads. It has been recorded. I am sure that in the writing of this text, the subliminal is at work. It works especially by the repetition and the appearance of words like "abstraction" (sometimes where they are not expected) and by the linking of words like "emotion," "feeling," "idea," "concept," then by a sort of geographical environment of words like "the city." "the water," "the desert," "the mountain," and finally by a certain number of references to "heel," to "helmet," etc. All that is at work. But every time it reappears, it does so in a meaningful way, so that one can not help but recall that "it's been here before." Even if one feels one has forgotten, it crosses the different levels of consciousness.
Like the word Skin Screen, which has a vast range of meaning. The screen can be a net, a veil; it can hide, it can unveil, it can allow something to pass, to escape, etc. The order of the subliminal certainly enters in that sense.
I even say that "when you have a room of your own, you can still screen a corner of the room." I have a room of my own, but not in order to unveil everything; it is also in order to have a screen and I need to cross it, to attract Michèle Vallée ("I knew that the screen behind her would be lowered"). There again it is a question of virtual and real images, or of images to be guessed or suspected. The screen of the skin is also very important. The skin is a screen filled with images which provide sensations.
In advertising, the subliminal sets out to convince. Isn't this aspect dealt with in the most "subliminal" way in Picture Theory? This seems to be a new aspect in relation to the theoretical aspect expressed in l'Amèr.
That is why I could not call this book theoretical fiction as I did l'Amèr. Picture Theory is a book that prepares for theory. I think that all fictional writing works with the subliminal, whatever its quality or its mediocrity. When I say, for instance, "one word rather than another at the speed of light," it reflects the subliminal trait of thought and of writing. That also explains the terror we have of losing our manuscripts. Every writer is himself the "victim" of the subliminal in his texts. It is true to say that the subliminal is at work—I would even draw attention to it by virtue of the fact that this process reflects what in me tries to rise onto the screen of my thought. The chapter of the Hologramme is in a certain way the visual moment when the image finally stays fixed on the retina long enough to no longer be an illusion. "Shown," it is perfectly readable. The whole of Picture Theory is the story of the implementation of this image, in other words, everything was written so that I might capture a clear image of her through whom anything can happen. An image that is clear, complete, three-dimensional, inalterable.
The work of writing is thus done in transparent strata and this produces the movement of reading (which refers back to the working of the hologram). How then, can one find in this book the markers that indicate the other works? Does Picture Theory function as a condensation of the thought processes of writing and of feminism?
Yes, I think it is a synthesis of my method of writing from a feminist consciousness, from lesbian emotion and thought that open into essay and poetry. When I look at Picture Theory, I realize that the first chapter could have been a page from Un livre. The second, although it is different from Amantes, could be the moment of Amantes; but it works differently. It goes beyond sensuality, beyond sexuality, it joins le Centre blanc in the way we already discussed. It moves on into a transcendent, even philosophical dimension. The third chapter is what appears in Sold-Out, French Kiss and le Sens apparent, in other words, there is always this attempt to write a chapter with a subject-verb-complement as in the inserts of Sold-Out and French Kiss, or in the fluid writing of Sens apparent. It is the temptation of the always disputed, always diverted story. I very seldom consent to the subject-verb-complement or to the anecdote. I have played on the present and the imperfect tenses which create quite a different relationship between very fluid sentences. I played on a certain number of clichés like "the obscure clarity." Chapter 4 is in my usual style. Chapter 5 is quite novel in terms of breathing and rhythm. This is a synthesis which in a different way could nourish the books yet to come. I am thinking of an essay on modernity, on writing, on feminism and lesbianism, on the imaginary, aerial vision, the hologram, light, etc. On tautology also. Picture Theory is obsessed with the poem, and I have the impression that this word will probably actualize other writing. Picture Theory is a loose novel that examines many dimensions, that is concerned with writing, the women's issues, the ontological existence of women. Strange as it may seem—I have, after all, been talking about it for some time—Picture Theory remains an enigma for me. I know and I don't know what wrote this book. In that sense I think it will be a tool in writing the essay I am planning.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4562
SOURCE: "The Development of a Lesbian Sensibility in the Work of Jovette Marchessault and Nicole Brossard," in Traditionalism, Nationalism, and Feminism: Women Writers of Quebec, edited by Paula Gilbert Lewis, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 227-39.
[In the following essay, Rosenfeld compares the "great contributions [of Nicole Brossard and Jovette Marchessault] to the development of a lesbian sensibility in the literature of Quebec."]
Until the rise of the women's liberation movement, lesbianism as a theme had no real existence in the history of literature. From the age of Sappho in the sixth century B.C. to the beginnings of a lesbian culture in the Paris of the early twentieth century, a silence of two thousand five hundred years bears witness to the long war which the patriarch) waged against lesbianism. In Quebec the literary expression of lesbian love would be censored for an even longer period of time due to the misogyny of the Catholic Church and the sexism of the State. In this essay, I shall try to answer the following questions: Does a relationship exist between lesbianism as a way of life and as a form of writing? What audiences are the lesbian books of Jovette Marchessault and Nicole Brossard addressing? Are the experimentations of Brossard and Marchessault affecting the contemporary literature of Quebec?
Jovette Marchessault is a self-taught person. Born in Montreal in 1938, she is of mixed ancestry, having both French and Indian forbears. Although she describes her early childhood as a time of joy and growth, she experienced despair at the age of five after her impoverished family had moved from the country to the slums of Montreal. She left school as an adolescent, worked for many years in factories, and continued to learn at night by borrowing books from the public library. Having come of age during the dark and bigoted Duplessis era, Jovette Marchessault felt isolated as a lesbian. Indeed her main reason for wishing to become a writer was to break the silence. But years would pass before she would finally overcome the self-censorship which society imposes on its outcasts.
Since Jovette Marchessault came out as a lesbian only in 1979, she could not openly express her chosen way of life in the early seventies when she first wrote Comma une enfant de la terre. This book, however, clearly foreshadows the themes and sensibility which will ripen and bloom in her later works. Even at this early stage of the author's career, the lesbian spirit shines through the heroine's total identification with other amazons of Quebec.
Having eschewed woman's traditional roles of marriage and motherhood, Jovette Marchessault sought to express her feelings and her goals. She wanted, above all, to expand her horizons through readings and travel. With Francine, an old friend, the female protagonist of this work leaves her home in April on a sumptuous journey through North America. But the object of the voyage is neither sightseeing nor pleasure; rather, it is an amazon's quest for the promised land in which women can live in harmony with each other and with their natural surroundings. Similarly, during her nonstop journey from Quebec to Mexico, the young female warrior discovers new relationships between words and culture, between language and her amazonian identity. To Francine, her traveling companion, she expresses her faith in the power of words: "Les mots," she tells her, "m'apparaissent comme des escaliers en spirale qui aboutissent à une porte. Qui s'ouvre!" Jovette Marchessault would continue to write five more years before discovering those particular words that communicate the spirit of a lesbian culture.
Between 1976 and 1977, while the author was writing La Mere des herbes, her most explicitly autobiographical novel, she brought out some of the factors which prompted her to become a lesbian and a feminist. Having grown up in a predominantly female setting, the protagonist felt drawn at an early age to the women and girls who inhabited the world of her youth. She loved the Pépin sisters and the happiness which the latter built after the death of their tyrannical father. She also admired the schoolgirls who worked collectively during the summer to write a play. Unlike the prosaic males in charge of the scenery, the young girls used their imagination to express in beautiful language their feminist vision of the past. The protagonist's feelings of love toward women go back, however, to the close relationships which existed between grandmother and grandchild, between mother and daughter. Both women helped one another to raise the child in a warm and caring atmosphere: both of them spoke to her about their work in the store or the factory. It was the grandmother's system of values, however, her empathy with the living creatures of nature, and her rebellion against all forms of oppression, which later would give the protagonist/Marchessault the insight as well as the courage to fight against the patriarchy. With its marvelous descriptions of the mother spirit in plant, beast, and grotto, La Mère des herbes may be interpreted as a mythopoetical evocation of the ancestral goddess culture. Indeed, the beautiful images which illuminate this autobiographical novel bring out the closeness of the protagonist/Marchessault to her natural environment as well as her gynocentric vision of the world:
En visite dans la terre, sous la terre, nous sommes une somme inouïe de possible, tout est possible à l'embryon qui descend dans la mine pour se mettre au monde dans son rayon d'élection, s'installer dans le venire de sa mère retrouvée et s'en extraire ainsi qu'une pépite d'or après un temps raisonnable de mûrissement, d'incubation.
Written two years after La Mère des herbes, Tryptique lesbien is Jovette Marchessault's most openly lesbian text. Through the use of myth and allegory, this book illustrates the long history of patriarchal violence against women. Indeed, a major theme of the first panel of the work, "Chronique lesbienne du moyen-âge québécois," is the lesbian heroine's journey from the dark ages of religious bigotry to the bright and joyous realm of a woman-centered culture. Appearing now as a real person, now as a legendary character, the child protagonist of this section is both a prophet who foretells the coming of a new feminist era and a fighter against the heterosexual ideology of male supremacy. Thus, Jovette Marchessault shows the immense grief which the female protagonist experiences as an adolescent when her beloved cousin leaves her for the sake of a man.
"Les Vaches de nuit" begins appropriately with the radical critique of a culture that robs women of their sexuality and freedom. But the mythical mother cow and her daughter remember a pre-patriarchal world, and this remembrance stimulates them to travel at night far from the daily drudgery. As mother and daughter leave the old kitchen behind, they begin to experience long-forgotten feelings of closeness towards one another. Having joined their sister mammals in a region of jubilation and desire, the mother is now able to initiate her daughter to the mysteries of lesbian love in a way that would have been taboo under the patriarchy.
Similarly "Les Faiseuses d'anges." the last panel of Tryptique lesbien, portrays a mother who is both a midwife and a goddess. Indeed the abortionist appears as a revolutionary figure, one who defies the norms of the heterosexist culture, and as a healer who helps her sisters to break the cycle of the ever-increasing family, the endless toil, the self-sacrifice. Mother and daughter give birth metaphorically, to their new identities as women making conscious choices for personal freedom and for the quality of life on this planet.
By using analogies, myths, and symbols from a feminist perspective, Jovette Marchessault here tries, as in her earlier texts, to show the courage, the capacity for love, the solidarity of women. But the writer's growing militancy has given her an immediate awareness of the difficulties of ex-pressing herself in a language molded predominantly by men. Writing now as a lesbian, Jovette Marchessault can proudly ignore the sexist rule which has legislated the priority of the masculine over the feminine in French grammar. The pronouns, "ils" and "elles," for example, refer in this text either to men only or to female creatures exclusively. Instead of being complementary to masculine third persons, absorbed in the dominant language, feminine third persons are, in addition, strongly present in Tryptique lesbien. Other ways of interfering with the rules of the inherited language include such techniques as the fracturing of the autobiographical "I" which in turn represents a variety of female types (the independent girl-child, the rebellious adolescent, the prostitute, the separatist) and the periodic repetition of the "nous" form to emphasize, for example, the author's identification with the other lesbians who resisted the indoctrination of a hateful Catholic upbringing:
En ce temps-là du moyen-âge québécois, toutes les petites lesbiennes tiraient la langue et bavaient sur le plancher ou sur les images du petit catéchisme. Dès la fête des rois mages, ils avaient décidé de nous faire subir un entraînement intensif. Nous étions les fétiches de l'année, têtes de cochon, anneau d'or dans le groin, les monstres! Du planifié! Du prémédité! Du déchaîné! Jusqu' à l'épuisement complet de cette résistance qui n'en finissait pas de résister.
But Jovette Marchessault's rebellion against the patriarchal language transcends issues of grammar and stylistics. In order to express her rage against a culture which has severed women from their bodies, from the memory of their foremothers, from themselves, Marchessault had to unmask the taboos and the apparent logic of the dominant language as hypocritical veneers which hide the confusion and the pain of the oppressed. Ignoring the double standard of taste which has influenced literary critics to scoff at women writers for using words that would be accepted in texts written by men, Marchessault attaches strong particles such as "Super mâle" and "sperme" to the most exalted religious figures. The following passage is one example of a blasphemous description of the sacred and sadistic ceremonies of Christianity which rape the mind and spirit of the young lesbians: "A genoux les petites filles! C'est l'heure exquise de la fellation divine. A genoux! Ouvrez la bouche! Grande! Plus grande encore! Recevez la giclée de sperme du grand mâle eucharistique."
To subvert the traditional bourgeois language of its facade of rationality, the author also experiments with the sound of words, the analogous formation of idioms, the emergence of the absurd. In fact, the power of the phonetic language to shape new perceptions is illustrated at the beginning of Tryptique lesbien when the young lesbian's discovery of the choke of a car produces a linguistic illumination. The words, "choke" and "chum," become so closely associated in her mind that a new truth dawns on her: the boyfriend is a strangler; heterosexual relationships are a trap. Similarly, the author's play on the sound and rhythm of idioms succeeds in communicating feelings of anger which might never surface in a purely rational discourse. The following passage describes men harassing young girls at the end of the school day: "Ils montent à l'assaut, les mãles, l'air hagard, leurs dents en tremblent, la salive dans la poussière de la genèse, à l'assaut, à la pinçade, à la rigolade, à la renverse." Even more powerful than these word games are the passages in Tryptique lesbien which seem to arise from the subconscious. For example, when the lesbian is first confronted with the oppression of the working-class women of Quebec as prisoners in their own homes, as mothers of numerous children, as unwitting agents of the patriarchy, she cries out: "Cannibales, arrêtez le bal!" Strange and dreamlike, this seemingly absurd little sentence expresses the chaos and the intensity of feelings as they are actually experienced.
In order to communicate women's true perceptions of reality, Marchessault felt the need to go even further: to reexamine the words, the very terms which shape our, thinking and which mirror the prevailing attitudes of the class in power. Thus, while the word "fête" means public rejoicing to the dominant culture, the same term conveys notions of pain and sacrifice to the lesbian protagonist: "[Q]uand its disaient: 'Fête.' moi j'entendais autre chose! J'entendais l'hiver du sang sur la Terre des hommes." These semantic differences account for the author's desire to create other expressions and to give new meanings to a vocabulary which is incapable of expressing the feelings of minorities. In Tryptique lesbien, for instance, the words "rue" and "trottoir" come to mean the territories or gender roles in which the patriarchal culture imprisons both women and men. Likewise, the word "relique," which evoked the remains of a saint, now symbolizes the suffering and the appropriation of female bodies under patriarchal law. Other recurring expressions in Tryptique, such as "la Terre du sacrifice permanent," "le troupeau des ténèbres," and "l'ordre-des-castrants," are suggestive of women's bondage in the world of the fathers.
These syntactic and lexical experimentations would not have changed the medium of expression sufficiently, however, to transport us into a female space had not Jovette Marchessault also rejected the lifeless and univocal discourse of the mainstream. The deep feelings which she brings to her text are not watered down by the necessities of an antiquated narrative form. On the contrary, thoughts and emotions succeed one another so swiftly that the words, liberated from the restrictions of pause and period, go beyond the traditional sentence with its main and subordinate clauses, its finished character, its closed appearance. In the following passage, heart-gripping regrets over the lost childhood of the young lesbians produce the uninterrupted flow of a new language:
Je vous dis qu'ils nous ont volé notre temps quotidien.
Notre précieux temps de tous les jours pour jouer dehors, dedans, dans la verdure de la tendresse mutuelle. Notre temps à nous autres, temps de feu, de passion dans le velours rouge des bercements d'extase, des embrassements du corps.
Boundless and flowing, this new language is like a large river. The energy that emanates from this text helps to break down the old order, to challenge the powers that be. As a matter of fact, these passages with their rhythmical patterns, their pulse, their movement suggest, better than any specific ideas, the world of female creatures, the Utopia in which mother and daughter, memory and insight, struggle and sisterhood are brought together:
Le lait coule! Le lait gicle! Le lait coule à flot! Beauté, beauté, bonté blanche. Le lait neige! Le lait goutte, le lait odore! Le lait poudre! Le lait rafale! Le lait ouragane! Le lait nuage, le lait est maculé d'images!
The exuberant language of "Les Vaches de nuit" has become a paradigm for the liberation of all women.
While Jovette Marchessault began to write in her thirties, and while she struggled for a long time to develop a style that would convey her lesbian/feminist vision of the world, Nicole Brossard revealed a passion for the modernistic expression of thought from the very outset of her literary career in the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, however, her personal life began to change dramatically. She read, in rapid succession, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, and Ti-Grace Atkinson, gave birth to a daughter, and fell in love with another woman. Although Brossard had always shared Quebec's aspirations for sovereignty and independence, her feminist consciousness and her quest for a non-patriarchal language also led her, during this same period of time, to turn away from the phallocentric vocabulary of the nationalist writers. In 1976, as a co-founder of Les Têtes de Pioche, she became politically active, penning incisive articles, many of which unmasked the oppressiveness of the heterosexual ideology. In L'Amèr, Le Sens apparent, and Amantes, she takes the reader on a long journey from the hell of patriarchal censorship to the glorious vision of a lesbian Utopia.
Brossard's ability to reconcile her lesbian/feminist perceptiveness with her original interest in new writing accounts for the depth of feeling which emanates from a book such as L'Amèr. This work deals with both the theory of writing and a woman's daily experience of her fragmentation as the lesbian mother of a young child. The narrator's anger over the erasure of the female self enables her to reveal the frightful conflict between her yearning for autonomy and her painful awakening to the endless responsibilities of motherhood. L'Amèr begins, appropriately, with words of defiance: "C'est le combat." The woman's struggle to free herself from this millennial bondage is a violent one. Although she loves her daughter, she totally rejects society's image of the mother as a paragon of virtue, a selfless drudge, a breeder and nurturer of children. While woman has been preoccupied with the survival of the young, man has appropriated to himself the symbolic order, the indispensable tool of language—hence his ideological control over the silent one, the stranger, the other. To take this language back, woman must challenge all of society, including its principal means of perpetuating itself: discourse. This questioning of the traditional language looms as a vital interrogation, a challenge which deals with the root causes of female oppression.
In L'Amèr, Brossard brings to light the arbitrariness of French grammar, and she shows in what way it has limited woman's self-expression. For example, the narrator, in the park with her young daughter, is unable to speak with the other mothers, the patriarchal mothers, devoted to men. Not only opposite attitudes towards life, but also language hampers communication: "Tout gravite autour d'une grammaire insensee." The narrator of L'Amèr condemns this senseless grammar as a symbolic system which has institutionalized the subordination of feminine persons to masculine persons. While Jovette Marchessault circumvented this grammatical sexism by refusing to describe mixed groups in Tryptique lesbien, Brossard takes the issue a step further, for she recommends a genderless tongue. Speaking to a woman friend, the narrator of L'Amèr thus expresses her wish: "[M]ais je te veux immense et chaude du corps saches nos énergies autrement que dans ton ventre mais des yeux. Asexu( ) ou peut-être invariable." The ending of the adjective has disappeared, just as gender will disappear in a society of equals.
Rebelling against the traditional idea of woman's subordination to the species and yearning to assert her own individuality, the narrator of L'Amèr writes: "J'ai tué le ventre et fait éclater la mer." But like Marchessault, Brossard comes up against the limitations of a vocabulary which has been contaminated by centuries of patriarchal rule. As an enthusiastic proponent of modernism, however, Brossard is the more innovative writer. Not only does she play with the meaning and the sound of words as Marchessault has done in Tryptique lesbien, she experiments also in L'Amèr with syntax and orthography. This method of interfering with the traditional language appears, for instance, in the changing physiognomy of the word "mère," a term full of ambiguities. Having acquired an A, the A of Alpha, the beginning of all things, and having lost its powerless, mute e, L'Amèr symbolizes a woman whose creativity and assertiveness enable her to assume her identity as "fille-mère-lesbienne," the desirable mother, the autonomous person whose energy circulates among women. When written in two words, L'A Mèr connotes a radical questioning of female reproduction, the absence of the mother. Spelled with a final e, l'Amère acquires the bitterness of female dependency, while yet in another context la mer signifies the sea, powerful and uncontrollable, the very antithesis of domesticated motherhood. A text which reduces the gap between fiction, theory, and reality, this book marks the end of an old order and promises a new beginning. It announces the coming of another world, of a non-patriarchal space in which women will relate to one another as independent creatures of desire and strength.
While L'Amèr transmits glimpses of lesbian love, Le Sens apparent tells the story of a deep friendship between Adrienne, Gertrude, Yolande, and the narrator, four women writers, who meet in restaurants and cafés traveling to and from New York and Montreal. Unlike the nameless character of L'Amèr who must first destroy the myth of woman's "biological destiny" before she can begin to write, however, the authors in Le Sens apparent possess the artistry, the leisure, and the love to support each other in their creative projects. As a matter of fact, one of the major themes of this novel is the narrator's protracted search for an amazon language: "Le temps tel que décrit par les amazones contemporaines."
The narrator's dual aim—to evoke the spirit of the island of Lesbos and to discover new forms of writing—accounts for the twofold character of the book itself. On the one hand a series of poems celebrates the relation between two lesbian writers; on the other hand a feminist manifesto recalls the long history of women's oppression and identifies the qualities that will enable them to recreate, through their writing, the greatness of their amazonian past. This quest for a lesbian literature is of the utmost importance not only because of the millennia of erasure and censorship, but also because the limited concept of reality in patriarchal societies compels women to seek their own reality in the realm of fiction. In Le Sens apparent Brossard tries to reclaim words and forms in order to call an oppressive order into question and to produce a new environment for the women writers who circulate in the twilight zone between fiction and reality. Eschewing the photographic portrayal of everyday life as a two-dimensional and linear narrative that perpetuates an obsolete vision of the world, Brossard now writes in an open-ended and circular manner. The book ends as it began with the narrator reflecting on love and on the text itself: "J'avais pensé follement le grand amour car je voulais à tout prix écrire un livre…. J'avais pensé follement le grand amour car je voulais à tout prix écrire un livre de manière à ne pas exagérer cette folle tentation, ce fol incident qui parcourt l'échine à mon insu et qui me fait écrire toutes ces chases…."
While Le Sens apparent shows women exploring together the relationship between fiction and reality, Amantes, as a lesbian continent, illustrates the link which exists between female eroticism and the development of a new form of writing. Divided into five parts by means of black and gray pages, illustrated with photographs of the modern world, and printed with a variety of types—capital letter, small letter, italics—this book immediately challenges the unidirectional character of patriarchal systems of thought. The vision of a rotating space and of a circular time in Amantes, however, is connected not only to the artist's search for new forms, but also to her lesbian passion which enables her to invent a version of reality outside of patriarchal censorship. That is why physical love between women, as a path leading to wholeness and integrity, forms the major theme of this volume of poetry. While the heterosexual view of woman's otherness leads to the erosion of the female self, erotic relationships between lesbians are conducive to the rediscovery of a new and multidimensional language.
Nowhere in Brossard's work is the rapport between lesbianism on the one hand and language on the other hand more evident than in Amantes, for the large number of grammatical feminines, in this book, constitutes a potent visual reminder of the separatist nature of this continent. Moreover, the recurrence of the "nous" form, plural and collective, expresses, as it does in Tryptique lesbien, the solidarity of a world of lesbians. But while Marchessault obeys the grammatical rules, Brossard does not hesitate to transgress them, omitting parts of the sentence, disrupting the subject-predicate sequence, altering punctuation and gender:
ma continent, je veux parler l'effet
radical de la lumière au grand jour
aujourd'hui, je t'ai serrée de près,
aimée de toute civilisation, de toute
texture, de toute géométrie et de braise,
délirantes, comme on écrit: et
mon corps est ravi
Amantes, Brossard's most avant-garde work, not only describes the touching, the embraces, the physical union of the lovers; it also brings out the omnipresence of words. Implicit in these pages is the existence of the subtle relationship which exists between Sapphic love and the writer's ability to create a new space or territory where lesbian women can be together. One of Brossard's principal methods for suggesting such an environment is the verbal spiral. Repeating the same words at intervals, but in so doing advancing a step each time, Brossard's twirling is related to her lesbian concept of love. The first spiral shows the lovers sharing the meaning of their nocturnal dreams:
la nuit décline ses relais. explorer:
l'ultime intime ailleurs
la tête tourne, enlaçons le détail de notre science,
(l'ultime intime ailleurs)….
The second spiral brings out in a rhythmical flow of words the joy of yielding to temptation:
j'ai succombé à toutes les visions
séduite, surface, série et sérieuse
j'ai succombé à la vision claire
des végétations et des événements
j'ai succombé à l'écho, au retour,
à la répétition, au commencement
des verièbres était la durée
une réplique essentielle à tout instant
dans la joie que j'ai de toi,…
In the third spiral, we see the connection between the texture of the words and the taste of a kiss:
et nous imaginons de nou-
velles moeurs avec ces bouches mêmes qui savent tenir un
discours, les nôtres au goût des mots au goût du baiser….
les faits sont tels que le project du texte et le texte
de projet s'accomplissent au goût des mots, au goût du
baiser, je sais que tu m'es réelle / alors
A subversive style which breaks the monotony of traditional and linear writing, the spiral signifies openness, continuity and the perpetuation of life. In the words of Brossard: "'[The spiral is] a very dynamic form … which is related to lesbian sensibility.'"
Jovette Marchessault and Nicole Brossard, two lesbian/feminist writers of Quebec, have had the courage to explore the world of their dreams and to translate their experience into language. What distinguishes these two authors is their emotional honesty combined with their quest for a non-sexist idiom—fresh, daring, and uninhibited. Refusing the very thought of male domination, these women-identified-women are not afraid of venturing into the unknown, of taking chances with new modes of writing and new forms.
A careful reading of Tryptique lesbien and particularly of Amantes shows that there is a rapport between lesbianism, as a rediscovery of woman's desire, and writing outside of the heterosexual hegemony. As lesbian/feminists, Jovette Marchessault and Nicole Brossard address themselves primarily to women; as innovators, questioning the very nature of fiction, they are beginning to change the character of literature in Quebec. In spite of the differences between these two writers—Brossard, an enthusiast of the big city, is urbane and modernistic; Marchessault, a devotee of the land, is an adherent of the earth goddesses, a friend of the mammals—both of these authors have undoubtedly made great contributions to the development of a lesbian sensibility in the literature of Quebec.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972
SOURCE: "Women of Skin and Thought," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 4, January, 1987, p. 16.
[In the following review, Andersen discusses the feminist aims of Brossard's French Kiss and Lovhers.]
Nicole Brossard is one of the leading writers of Quebec. From a feminist literary viewpoint she is probably the most important one: she is an innovative writer who is also a radical feminist. Questioning established cultural patterns and systems, her texts—prose, poetry, theory and often a mélange of the three—have since the seventies been showing Quebec writers the way to modernity. Brossard's writing is literary theory as well as political statement; it promotes and uses almost exclusively women's images, symbols, language and experiences. Her aim is to place woman in the center—of society, culture and politics.
Brossard has written more than twenty books since 1965. Several have already been translated; now, these two recent and excellent translations, and a forthcoming translation of La lettre aérienne, to be published by the Toronto Women's Press, will help anglophone readers make the more thorough acquaintance of this avant-garde feminist from Quebec.
In Brossard's poetic prose, writing perpetually resists two elements which threaten, like parasites, to invade the text. One is reality, whether dull or exciting, the other is traditional fiction with its plots, its intriguing characters and/or objects. From the struggle against these tempters, which takes place within each sentence, emerges the text: condensed and at the same time exuberant, lucid and essential, textual essence, an energizing fluid, a literary super-fuel.
While reading Nicole Brossard is invigorating, it is not easy. I had to read every book of hers three, four, five times in order to comprehend the words, the pages and their meaning, and to arrive at an understanding—which nevertheless remains very personal. For Brossard's books demand that every reader grasp in her own way, through her personal sensitivity, her individual emotion and reflection—in short, with her différence—the multispiralled work. I can only speak of my reading(s) of Brossard's prose, readings always animated by the desire to see what is not evident, to decipher the innumerable secrets of the work in which Brossard inscribes women's existence and growth.
In A Book, the first of her novels, Brossard says that "evidences are not literary matter." Her writing does not include the already seen, heard, observed, understood, said, written. Brossard demands of herself a different écriture. Differently real, differently fictive. A variant. Deviant. In French Kiss, for example, she chooses "to brandish suspended meanings."
She rides astride syntax, shifts vowels, dilates syllables, breeds analogies, takes stabs at civil narrative, cuts out "trite intrigues." Her writing feeds on "zigs and zags and detours," the letters of her words fornicate before settling on the pages of her books.
Quebec history, women's history, women's lives, their loving and their thinking are the canvas onto which these texts are woven. In the case of French Kiss, which takes place in Montreal, the translator has added "occasional unobtrusive aids" which will help the reader to understand the east-west (francophone-anglophone) opposition in the city, as well as the frequent allusions to Quebec history and literature. Lovhers is a later text, written after Brossard had come to know American feminism, after she and Luce Guilbeault had made the documentary Some American Feminists in 1976. This was a time when American feminism was perceived as much more radical than Canadian, Quebec and French feminisms. Maybe it was for that reason that Lovhers takes place mainly in New York's Barbizon Hotel for Women, where
… the girls of the Barbizon
in the narrow beds of America
have invented with their lips
a vital form of power
to stretch out side by side
without parallel and: fusion.
In Lovhers, text is body and body is woman, writing is bending over the paper and the "lovher" and begins with the declaration of love, is love. Brossard's texts exalt women and their creative powers. She joyously overturns such negative symbols as the castrating abyss, the devouring mother, woman as sinner. In her writing we see a euphemization of the female body, of belly, vulva, breasts and lips. Her women are intelligent, playful, productive, imaginative, creative all at once. They are women of skin and thought (peau et pensée), of their own will and voluptuousness (volonté et volupté), women no longer isolated, ignorant, ignored, lobotomized by patriarchy. They are free, free to create a network of women strengthened by a common drive, a common desire to reinvent the world. A utopian desire, yes, but one that generates pleasure, certitude, hope, thought, dream and emotion. Lovhers can be contrasted with that other recent Canadian novel, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which is equally visionary but icily frightening. Indeed, in The Handmaid's Tale and Lovhers, dystopia and utopia, Canadian literature has captured the polarities of women's image of the future.
French Kiss, first published in 1974, still reflects the sixties and early seventies. It tells of five individuals' attempts to live outside social constraints. Resistance fighters in the urban labyrinth of Montreal, a city which terrifies and fascinates them, Marielle, Alexander, George, Lucy and Camomille question everything in their search for "the perfect (total) usage of their bodies, viscera, epidermises." In the five years they spend together, before police intervention puts an end to their communal adventure, they achieve relative harmony: "At least we managed to communicate among ourselves all the fragments of knowledge and wisdom each of us had access to from our own enquiry and experience. We were awareness and communication."
Because of the role played by men in French Kiss, it seems less radically feminist than Lovhers. Yet it celebrates the energy of women. The narrator of the story is a woman who creates a new language, a nouvelle écriture, mixing blood and ink, life and writing, and who, above all, fits a filter into the story in order to "sift out static and clumps of cartilaginous words"—patriarchalsyntax, vocabulary, linearity—"the language-power which controls." The text she produces is like the daily bread that women have baked for so long; blackening a page is compared to toasting a slice of bread. Writing is woman's work and woman does away with the old dualism of body and mind. In the process, women meet each other: "… on Camomille's lips a kiss, rather chaste. Nibbled lips. Pain/relaxation. Pleasure, lips licked, left wet. I slip through the slot the text provides …"
Lovhers (first published in 1980 as Amantes) brings us into the center of Nicole Brossard's writing. We penetrate into the open yet secret mandala of women's existence. The title of the book announces a celebration of lesbian love and, as the combining of conventionally opposite ideas is one of the dominant features of Brossard's writing, that celebration is reflective as well as exuberant, bringing together all the polarities of female being. We read of lesbian rejoicing and rejoicing over text. For the lovhers, loving, reading and writing are simultaneous and equally important. Reading and delirium (lire et délire) are interconnected, sensual pleasure and intellectual discourse are punctuated by kisses.
The New York Barbizon Hotel for Women witnesses the lovhers' encounter, at once intellectual and sensual. Real yet vertiginously symbolic, this space is both mathematical figure and luxuriant dream in which the four lovhers invent a new beginning for women. Without shame the body moves from the private to the political; female excess rejoices in the emotional as well and as much as the cerebral.
A mandala is a circle of complex design, often enclosed by a square. It is a symbol of outer space as well as an image of the world. It is also a shrine for divine powers. In Lovhers, the Barbizon rises like a clitoris on the map of New York. (I must say I prefer the French edition of the book, not only because of the language—I myself usually write in French—but also because it is illustrated with photographs of the New York skyline, making the geometric design of the mandala more visible.) In this rectangular building Brossard assembles the circle of four lovhers, cardinal points of her intimate universe.
The sacred space of the mandala houses an exemplary figure: Woman. (How lucky we are in French to have the word femme which does not include the word "man.") The symbol by which she is represented in Lovhers is her mouth. In French Kiss mouths already ventured "blindly towards each other, allowing each to lose itself inside the other's geography." Lips gaped "like hungry traps inviting flies into the ink, there to sleep and sleep some more while I get back to the text and Camomille's lips." But in French Kiss men are still present, are still lovers. In Lovhers they do not exist. Here woman is the divinity, characterized by the mouth, a mouth which Brossard juxtaposes to the vulva.
I read Lovhers as a modern illustration of the long-forgotten, almost erased, myth of Baubo. In the myth, Baubo (who was either Persephone's or Demeter's nursemaid) managed to make Demeter smile again after the abduction of Persephone by lifting her gown and exposing her vulva. The Baubo figure was worshipped during the festivities of the thesmophoria, a women's festival which included lesbian activities. Men were excluded from this festival, one of the most important of ancient Greece. (Did you hear about it in school? I didn't.)
Far from being one of the curious obscenities of mythology, the Baubo story emphasizes the possibility of solidarity among women and celebrates women's pride. In Lovhers women exult in their reunion. They find in each other what Demeter found in Baubo's gesture: friendship, intimacy, pleasure and strength.
In this book, all activities are double. Celebration is exuberant at the same as it is thoughtful meditation. While writing, the narrator of Lovhers never stops reading other women's texts. Mouths are places for words as well as kisses, an "orgasm is like a process leading / to the integral: end of fragments / in the fertile progress of lovhers." Lovhers can conceive anything:
woman is coming showing the tip of a breast
as though to signal the beginning of a cycle,
if nobody moves in this instant, everything
can vertigo to become virtual.
Lovhers speaks of woman's journey towards the luminous center of female intimacy and inscribes in it the word "mouth" which is at once lips, tongue, language and vulva. Parole de femme, voluptuous orgasm, utopia, this is what happens in the shameless orgy in the mandala of the Barbizon where the forces of women converge. This location, this happy island, exists outside the patriarchal world. Here in the "sleep/wake" of women, the future is present, everything is open, accessible, mind and body are no longer separated, are satisfied. Harmony consists of "the voice of a thousand spectacles in us." The moon rises while a thousand women meet in the intimacy of their desire, to know pleasure and pride. Thanks to Brossard, we are finally stripped of our "shameful parts" (parties honteuses) and our feeble minds; we come into possession of our bodies, our thinking, all of our imagination, able to express ourselves without inhibition.
Is utopia dangerously unrealistic? Brossard does not think so. On the contrary, she believes that we cannot live without its challenge. According to her, men have been unable to imagine that a sisterhood of women could reinvent the world, its ideas, emotion, sexuality, creativity, play. This lack in man's imagination has, of course, marred the female imagination. Brossard asks us to accept the challenge of imagining the island of utopia as an island for women only. For those who, like me, find man's world insufferably dangerous, Brossard's utopian island can be something like a clearinghouse for the mind, maybe even a pleasure-house, a dream instead of a nightmare; fleeting, yes, but absolutely essential.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2342
SOURCE: "Feminism and Postmodernism," in American Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, May-June, 1988, pp. 8, 20.
[In the following review, Godard discusses Nicole Brossard's Le Désert mauve and Gail Scott's Heroine and asserts that "It will be hard for [other writers] to surpass the brilliance of the writing of Gail Scott and Nicole Brossard in their critiques of representation and of narrative."]
Especially in Quebec, feminists have played an important role in theorizing postmodernism through their intervention as editors of the prominent periodicals La nouvelle barre du jour and Spirale, of which Nicole Brossard and Gail Scott were founding coeditors, respectively. The feminist editor of Island and Periodics, Daphne Marlatt, fulfilled a similar, if less lauded, function in English-Canadian writing. Feminism in these milieux has been seen as the salient feature of postmodernism through its deconstruction of binary oppositions and its critique of the master narratives of Western culture, indeed its critique of all narratives and all totalizing theories.
The publication of new fictions by two of the leading feminists and postmodernist writers of francophone and anglophone Canada, Le désert mauve by Nicole Brossard and Heroine by Gail Scott, reminds us once again of the pertinency of this linking of these discourses of critique. Indeed, the back cover of Le désert mauve specifically heralds the work as a postmodern novel, while the imprint of Coach House—centre of English-Canadian postmodern publishing—fulfills the same signalling function for Heroine. Other ties are forged through the feminist-postmodernistconnection. The dialogue between anglophone and francophone feminists in Canada and Quebec has been the only point of contact between these two literatures. It has stimulated the most innovative writing of the last decade and, with the impressive roster of young women whose first books are appearing on the appropriate small press lists this year, promises to do so for several more years.
For a number of years Brossard and Scott have participated in a theory discussion group along with other prominent feminist writers: Louky Bersianik, Louise Cotnoir, Louise Dupré, Daphne Marlatt, France Théoret, and Betsy Warland. Through their talks, theoretical articles and texts, this discussion has been shared with an audience stretching across the continent. Both Brossard and Scott have already published texts announcing their resistance to the line, to any party line, but especially to the line of narrative. With its insistence on temporality as causality, so grammars of minimal narratives instruct us, narrative employment is entrapment. The narrative line catches readers, making them accept as inevitable and hence as natural that which is constructed, fabular. With their focus on the endings of marriage or death, the plots of fictional narrative—especially the "heroine's plot," as Ellen Moers has called it, the marriage plot of the realist novel—are deadly traps for the independent feminist reader and writer. She must resist the line.
Brossard's writing, writing as research, in her words, is a writing of resistance. In L'Amèr, où le chupitre effrité (These Our Mothers: Or the Disintegrating Chapter), she developed a theory of sexual difference as relational difference, deconstructed the master fictions through which the reality of women's lives has been constructed, and disrupted the line. Chapters disintegrate as the text circles around five discrete moments: "Strategic wound or suspended meaning"—"combat." "Fiction begins suspended mobile between words and the body's likeness to this our devouring and devoured mother." In this suspension, the sentence is also disrupted, syntax abandoned. Brossard works on language, deconstructing its gendered plot(ting) and opening multiple new meanings through her work on the material signifier. In Spare Parts, Gail Scott focuses on short narrative sequences which are further broken up in resistance to the line when individual sentences or paragraphs fly off in new directions, as in the surrealist cadavre exquis. Such syntactic and narrative discontinuity is reinforced by an exploration of the fragmented female body. The excessive and detached parts are both grammatical and corporeal, the title of the collection foregrounding the ruling metaphor of this phase of feminist exploration of language and meaning.
In their new books, Brossard and Scott extend their resistance in new directions, particularly into the problematics of the referent in the creation of the "reality effect." Both risk the line in what are exciting new ways for each writer. Scott's Heroine is the most important feminist fiction yet to emerge in English Canada and in its short life has already attracted enthusiastic audiences. Part of the pleasure for the reader lies in the possibility for nostalgic reminiscence on the left-wing political and intellectual scenes of the seventies, which the narrator evokes in bits and pieces of exceptionally vivid detail while she negotiates a rite of passage, trying to make sense of her life and orient herself in a new direction. The narrative remains in suspense, however, between the rhythm of Marxist political action, legacy of the open love affair with a left-wing leader where passion has died, and the shadowy promise of feminist sororality held out by a friend. Marie, who urges the narrator to participate in demonstrations in support of abortion. Nostalgia is a trap, though. Memory is purely fictive, a world-being called "Sepia," with whom the narrator engages in monologue.
The temptation to empathize with the character is further undermined by the narrative framing. The narrator is seated in a bath in a rooming house trying to plan out a novel, struggling with the difficulty of creating a positive heroine in a context where symbolically women do not exist. Through its meditation on the negative image of women—"she looks instinctively for her own reflection in a store window. But it's too dark to see clearly"—the fiction offers a critique of representation intertwined with a critique of patriarchal domination of the symbolic. The mimetic element in the novel is undercut by the processual hermeneutic of the narrator's self-reflexive discussion of her difficulties of writing, of the problem of gaining enough distance from her character. Maybe this would be easier if she got out of the bath, she wonders.
But it is also undercut by the blurring of levels of narrative which occurs. The only dialogue the narrator has in the text is with her heroine, a confounding of fiction and reality in the narrated text which foregrounds and defamiliarizes the tendency for the reader to enter into dialogue with the fictional narrator. The constructed and aleatory aspects of the narrative are also laid bare through two other narrative devices, the grey woman who inexplicably appears on the Montreal street to both narrator and heroine and the black tourist whose bird's eye view through the telescope on the top of Mount Royal panning the cityscape is the opening scene of the novel. His progress through the city provides the frame for each chapter. But the black tourist has no story to tell, does not engage with the characters, remains an inexplicable figure undermining our attempts to effect closure and make sense of the narrative. Closure is resisted also in the parodic reworking of the heroine's plot which lays bare its grammar: the heroine does not choose a marriage partner, but is chosen. Even more passive is the heroine of Scott's novel within a novel, who is the epitome of negativity. Needless to say, Heroine is an ironic title.
Although the past is fictive and the future unrepresentable, the present of narration is ludic. Scott's prose is as densely textured as a poem, indeed like a poem it echoes and reechoes, structured not around the temporal sequence of clauses but around repeated segments which allow the work to take shape in the mind's ear. This clashes with the emphasis on detailed visual imagery which creates the scintillating surfaces of the novel. Everything is illusion. In the same way the extraordinarily rich symbolic imagery clashes with negativity to create further paradoxes which disrupt linear logic. Such a novel, needless to say, does not end. The final section, entitled "Play It Again, S," invites us to think associatively through this collage. It breaks off, after a list of sentences stating what she thinks or she does, in midsentence with the word "She-."
Scott's fiction also disrupts linguistic norms with its mixture of English and French. This is a feature of Le désert mauve as well, though, in keeping with its setting in Nevada. Spanish is thrown in too. But in Brossard's novel, the question of the multiple possible signifiers for a single referent is not just a question of realistic effect. In this novel about a translator it is at the heart of the matter, the inevitable slipperiness of language. For Brossard, translation has become a trope for difference, for the continual suspension or deferral of meaning which is the work of the critical text, the fiction/theory she writes. Writing as re/writing, always already written. The text is also a sequel to Brossard's experiences both of being translated and as a translator, a mode of re/ writing she has recently become engaged in as she and Daphne Marlatt have translated each other's work (Mauve and Characters/Jen de lettres). Subsequently Brossard began experiments in self-translation in which she repeated the process of composition, rather than doubling the referent, as is the usual model for translation practice. In L'Aviva, emotion is first voiced and heard, then "translated" into works and acted upon in textual pleasure. Subsequently, in a second moment, this emotion is translated into a second text through a process of sound association and play on words which effect a transformation in the material signifier like the reverberations and mimicry of the echo. "La peau de décrire un instant" becomes "l'eau qui décrit car c'est lent." In fact, this is an extension of Brossard's habitual process of composition in the surrealist mode, linking chains of auditory association rather than making imagistic connections.
Le désert mauve is divided into four sections. The first is composed of a book, "Le désert mauve," purportedly by Laure Angstelle, published by Editions de l'Arroyo, a book which we learn has been discovered by Maude Laures in a secondhand bookstore in Montreal and which she decides to translate. The second and longest section, "Un livre à traduire", relates the process of "transformance" as Maude Laures works on the text in preparation for translating it. In turn divided into sections—places and objects, characters, scenes and dimensions—Maude's text breaks the first narrative down into its component parts, offering descriptive detail to produce the "reality effect." Simultaneously, it explores the process of translation, the mysterious connection that leads a translator to extend her life through the pages of a book written by another woman. The immersion of translator in the writer's world is complete, suggests Brossard, so that the translator engages in a process of rewriting, confronting the necessity for betraying the language in order to maintain the fiction. To the old adage of the translator's inevitable treason, Brossard counters with writing as doubling or difference. Writing is doubling or not(h)ing.
The final section, a book titled "Mauve l'horizon," translated by Maude Laures and published by Editions de l'Angle, demonstrates that drift at work. This section repeats the first section. As is the case with the titles, the "translated" text uses almost the same words, substituting synonyms or reworking sentence division. "Je filais la lumière" becomes "Je tissais la lumière," for example. But repetition is always difference: there is only the simulacrum, words repeating other words already written.
Another type of translation or transposition is introduced into the book to form a fourth part folded within the second section. As she grapples with Laure's narrative, Maude works through the story of the tall man in images. A series of five photographs is positioned at the centre of the book, framed within photographs of the front and back of a file folder which bear the handwritten inscription "L'homme long." In this way, as in the anamorphic photograph of the author which graced the cover of her diary, Journal intime, Brossard offers a critique of the representative features of art. Photography, which is the most mimetic of the arts, is here shown to be self-referential: the link between image and referent is blurry. The whole question of original and reproduction becomes preposterous, moreover, in face of the intertwining of the two texts, "original" and "translated," within Brossard's novel. Here, as in her earlier fiction, it is the fiction which makes us real. Significant in this regard is the meditation on "reality" in Maudes "Un livre à traduire." In this section, Maude attempts to "isolate reality," that is, to "insulate" it like a self-contained room in which she can give herself up to the "most concrete mental adventures in the company of Laure Angstelle and her characters." But reality, Maude observes, is "what we find through an incalculable return of things imaged." While "reality counts," we tend to plunge into it "naturally," thinking it to be a valid category. Reality, however, must be constructed through words. She will condense reality so that it can be felt on her skin: "La réalité serait tout à fait palpable, concrète, dense. Les couleurs seraient précises, les mots utiles, univoques" (Reality will be quite palpable, concrete, dense. The colours will be exact, the words useful, univocal). "Vraisemblance," likeness, is defined by Maude as that appearance which is upheld by the will to be. Brossard's self-reflexive fiction about these processes of doubling or re/writing develops her perennial concerns through the metaphor of translation. In doing so, it resists the temptation to repeat earlier work and offers new challenges to the reader through her consideration of all writing as translation and her experiments in homolinguistic translation.
To herald these two new fictions as the most outstanding works of the year, as one is tempted to do, is premature, perhaps in light of the forthcoming publications promised by major avant-garde women writers…. It will be hard for them to surpass the brilliance of the writing of Gail Scott and Nicole Brossard in their critiques of representation and of narrative.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1947
SOURCE: A review of Lovhers and Le Désert mauve, in Canadian Literature, Nos. 122-123, Autumn-Winter, 1989, pp. 190-93.
[In the following review, Forsyth states that in Brossard's Lovhers and Le Désert mauve she "writes with the assumption that both the personal and the poetic are political."]
Nicole Brossard published Amantes in 1980. Except for D'arcs de cycle la dérive, a limited edition poem and engraving, this was her first book of poetry following the publication of the retrospective Le Centre blanc in 1978. She was widely recognized by then as the major radical feminist and post-modern writer in Quebec. Amantes continues the experimental direction Brossard had established in her poetry, while also marking a fresh stage in her theoretical development. A set of love poems written for another woman, Amantes is richly erotic in language and theme. Along with the prose work Le sens apparent, it indicates the direction Brossard was to take in her writing through the 1980's.
Brossard makes use of unexpected interfaces in traditional literary genres to work out, in language that is sparse, condensed and rigorously precise, her compelling vision of women choosing to occupy all dimensions of space on their own terms by beginning at the vital centre. Therefore, the novel Picture Theory picked up in narrative form major images and expressions from Amantes. In doing so the novel further opened thematic perspectives, particularly those related to the complex bonds which form in all areas among women who express their love for women. Brossard's latest prose work Le Désert mauve, a challenging novel in language and form, is both a lyrical celebration of women's love for girls and women and an urgent quest for vital truths which have not yet found form in the traditions of dominant culture. It is a matter of making a different kind of sense.
The language of love between women has broad connotations in Brossard's work. Always present is the sensual pleasure of being fully awake to one's body, its emotions and sensations, along with the further joy of shared ecstasy. Concrete images evoking relations of intimacy abound. Intense emotional experience is accompanied by intellectual awareness, a sense of self and a sense of the other: knowing who one is—as a fully integrated individual—and where one is, asking questions about what each particular situation means. By virtue of its special nature, lesbian love serves as a metaphor for women's radical transformation: "orgasm like a process leading to the integral." The experience of sensual fulfillment is never detached in Brossard's work from themes of language. Love known is love expressed. The taste of lips is inseparable from the taste of words, however hard the right ones are to find. To know love is to speak, read and write. Love brings production of texts where women reclaim submerged memory, imagine new forms, envision futures and utopias, emerge into the reality of a social and cultural landscape congenial to their experience and knowledge. Lesbian love poetry and fiction in the radically revolutionary writing of Nicole Brossard offer perception of unknown universes whirling within and flowing through other unknown universes, ranging from the most personally intimate to the most lost in space.
Brossard writes with the assumption that both the personal and the poetic are political. Lovhers and Le Désert mauve explore important ramifications of the inseparability of these areas. Both books contain characters who write, read and appreciate the texts of others: words have unlimited power to move the imagination. The title of the first section of Lovhers is "(4): Lovhers/Write." The book's theme and structure is established by the figure 4, in whose graphic form one can see the spiral so central to Brossard's vision. The number 4 suggests wholeness and cyclical completion in its association with such notions as four primordial elements, four seasons, four compass points. Such is the nature of the full love between the women, for whom the number 4 could also suggest the look of complicity and passion between them, two lucid eyes gazing into two lucid eyes: 2 + 2 = 4. "The Vision" in which the passion grows intense and which then opens onto women's autonomous space contains four parts: Vertigo, Spiral, Sleep, Excess, each of which in turn contains four parts. The title "Lovhers/Write" establishes from the start the inseparable relationship between lesbian love and writing, for the delirium of love between women means a dynamic sense of identity: "integral presence," gives "the body back intelligence" and brings the energy to assault conventional constructs of reality, particularly as they serve the blind interests of power in the modern city. Erotic images insist upon the excitement of meeting at new intersections. As the two lovers arouse each other, through their bodies as well as their texts, as new questions form out of the difference between the women, and as words and voices of other women are quoted, they grow "igneous" and their rapture is enhanced. Its relevance is broadened; its nature as exciting process is emphasized; primordial memory surges forth, and images of what might be socially and culturally for women swell like a passion from the sea: "we can conceive anything."
As ardour intensifies in Lovhers to the point of vertigo and excess, new states of consciousness are reached. Lovhers and readers feel themselves "slip gently into the continent of women." Succumbing to the temptation of women in love they move through the looking glass to "pass through / take shape and choose [themselves]," to explore their "ultimate intimate elsewhere." Brossard uses her fragmented language to evoke the experience, not describe it. Word play suggests the intense emotion surpassing words, "with a tongue that has visions," leaving the reader to move herself in the openings among the words and images. Barbara Godard's translation conveys the richness of this poetic experience admirably, for her English text has almost as rich evocative powers as the French original. It is a shame, however, that Lovhers does not contain the drawing and photographs which so enhance Amantes.
In the final section, "My Continent," the lovhers, moving in "the spatial era of women," claim their geographical, conceptual and cultural space; they have been brought into the world by their love, their awareness, their language and the exchange of their experience. The result is dazzling, with the poet's voice stating in the end that her "body is enraptured."
The search for new modes of being in space is also the subject of Le Désert mauve, where indescribable and unlimited possibilities appear in the desert, the novel's dominant metaphor. The same anger found in Lovhers, against patriarchal institutions responsible for the torture of women and the repression of their experience, is expressed with particular vehemence in this novel. Also stressed, both thematically and structurally, is the importance of women writing, women reading texts written by women, women "translating," whether in their own language or another, so their active involvement in the text gives it the extra shot of energy needed to ensure it circulates in society and works its transformational and generative magic.
Le Désert mauve is the story of a tale. It begins with the text of a short novel written by a certain Laure Angstelle, "Le Désert mauve." A copy of this novel within the novel was found in a second-hand shop in Montreal by another character, Maude Laures, who, strangely fascinated by its mysterious author and its tantalizing characters and events, decided to translate it. The final part of Le Désert mauve is the second book, her "translated" version of the first: "Mauve, l'horizon." Between these two books is the long central section in which the "translator" uses her imaginative and spiritual powers during the process of working through the meaning of the book and its various elements as she prepares to find her own language and perspective on the tale. She gives free rein to her own inventiveness and no doubt winds up thinking what neither the characters nor the first author thought—such is the joy of shared experience and free expression. It is this process, this creative work with words, this active reflection on the questions raised by the book's fiction, which represent the major element of the novel's action. There is lots of room left for the reader to enter into the action by imagining and telling her own version of the enigmatic events.
The three variations on Mélanie's story establish the anecdotal subject of Le Désert mauve. Fifteen-year-old Mélanie lives in the Arizona desert at her mother's motel, a place of empty images and social ritual. The essential danger inherent in such superficiality becomes clear in the end. Driving her mother's Meteor at breakneck speed across the desert, Mélanie is a centre of awareness and ardent energy seeking knowledge, yearning to push back horizons in order to discover the mode whereby she might pass as an integral woman into human society. Her mother's lesbian lover has helped her learn to read and to discover "la splendeur du mauve" of the desert. The story traces the steps of Mélanie's initiation in her urgent thirst to retain her freedom while bringing myriad hidden riches into the light. Unfortunately the initiation brings knowledge not only of the desert but also of the sordid reality of human society.
Each chapter of Mélanie's story is interwoven with a chapter containing the faceless, nameless "homme long," who haunts the motel and the novel in mysterious association with threatened violence and explosion. The modified form of his name in "Mauve, l'horizon," "l'hom'oblong," suggests a negative force imprisoning the dawn, the richest moment in the desert for Mélanie. "L'homme long" or "l'hom'oblong," a scholar who feels only contempt for humanity, seems to be one of those who are an absolute threat to the desert and all it means, as they impose their sterile formulas—their so-called knowledge—on it, bringing the destruction of atomic blasts. In the end of both fictional novels, the woman who offers knowledge and passion to Mélanie, while confirming the legitimacy of her quest, is shot while dancing in Mélanie's arms, presumably by "l'homme long." The meaning of this cruel death is not explained, although it suggests that mankind's reality, spreading dangerously to destroy life everywhere even into the vast and powerful desert, has absolutely no room for women's dynamic energy and vision. Above all, the inexorable mechanics of this hollow reality cannot tolerate the lucid gaze and the free expression of those who have truly known the desert, its mauve and fluid treasures. Blindly, anonymously, unemotionally, the social machine crushes and exterminates free spirits.
Despite the final destructive act which marks the end of Mélanie's quest, Brossard's novel is not a tale of defeat, since the story is told and retold by women who read each other's texts, translate them, imagine and invent them in different ways. The story told by Laure Angstelle about Mélanie does not lie forgotten. Its message is transported across space and time by Maude Laures, who enters actively into the creative process, finds the necessary words, brings the story to a new community. The act of translating is the act of transforming dangerous language patterns and old mind sets, building new community. Barbara Godard expresses well this particularly rich notion of translation as a collective process of transforming and bringing forth meaning in her Preface to Lovhers when she describes translation as: "a conglomerate, not a unitary, structure … a practice of reading/writing and, as such, the historical adventure of a subject," while the translator is "an active participant in the creation of meaning." Translation, inspired by ecstasy, is thereby a richly poetic and profoundly subversive practice.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7185
SOURCE: "i, a mother / i am other: L'Amèr and the Matter of Mater," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 17-38.
[In the following essay, Bok asserts that in Brossard's L'Amèr, she "disarms phallogocentric language, disarms such words as 'mother' and 'woman' and 'figure' so that they can no longer he used as masculine weapons."]
Nicole Brossard calls L'Amèr a book of combat, and indeed the (s)wordplay begins with the title—one word that suggests three: la mère (the mother), la mer (the sea), and l'amer (the bitter). The English translation These Our Mothers by Barbara Godard cleverly sustains this tripartite pun through elision: these our mothers, the sea our mother, and the sour mothers. Such paranomasia recalls The Newly Born Woman by French feminists Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, a text whose title in French also suggests a phonetic conflation of signifiers: la jeune nèe (the newly born woman), là je n'est (there the first-person subject does not exist), and là je une nais (there an origin of a feminine subject). Within both texts, the (s)wordplay in the title immediately announces the feminist attempt to undercut, to parry, to disarm, the hegemony of phallogocentric signification. The word "title" has more than one meaning: a title not only represents the proper name for a text, but also signifies a univocal right to authority over property. Titles entitle books to be appropriated by author(itie)s for the purpose of expressing an apparently stable position within discourse; however, the title of Brossard's text disrupts this stability through a linguistic self-consciousness that reveals the signifier's persistent tendency to evade the univocity of the proper name. Brossard's title does not lend itself to an economy of monosemic restrictions, but gives itself away to an economy of polysemic excess. The title in effect prepares the reader for the text's own violent attempt to destabilize any fixed, authoritative relationship of exchange between writer and reader.
(S)wordplay is violent, but this violence is always an act of self-defense. The defender, by virtue of her sex, cannot avoid participating in the duel of discourse without surrendering her life to the opponent, the master, a man skilled in the use of his weaponry, "language"—weaponry that the defender is always forced to employ, albeit according to her own style of combat. The battle is staged within the for(u)m of the book, an are(n)a where violence erupts at the level of both form and content. The syntactical fragmentation of the text parallels the deconstructive activity of the depicted narrator, who explicitly juxtaposes an act of violence with an act of writing: "[j]'ai tué le ventre et je l'écris"—"I have murdered the womb and I am writing it. The violence of the narrator is directed self-reflexively at both her uterus and her text, but this attack is not a spectacle of self-mutilation—the kind of masochistic spectacle that, according to Clément in The Newly Born Woman, typefies the experience of the hysteric, who reifies her suffering by repeatedly attacking herself instead of her male audience in order to sustain the voyeuristic attention of men. While Brossard's narrator attacks her opponent by miming an assault upon her own body and upon the body of her text, this attack is not designed to reaffirm the inevitability of either feminine suffering or feminine speechlessness (as the attack does in the case of the hysteric); on the contrary, the violence of the narrator symbolizes the irrevocable rejection of such inarticulate pain. Her attack does not result in the impotent aphasia of hysteria: instead, the death of her womb, of her "[a]nonymous matrix," is correlated with the birth of her writing, of her "polysemous dream."
Brossard's text sets out to dramatize what Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology might call "the unity of violence and writing"—the notion that "writing cannot be thought outside of the horizon of intersubjective violence": in short, language is the site of struggle, of hierarchies both established and dismantled. Brossard's text demonstrates that women have been the historical victims of language and that this victimization is enacted through the very words that women have traditionally spoken: such oppression appears to be embodied, for example, in the uterine terminology deployed by Brossard's text. The Latin word for "womb," matrix, is derived from the Latin word for "mother," mater; however, any biogenetic connotations to the word matrix have been virtually lost over time due to the advent of technical discourses that have appropriated the word matrix for the purposes of defining specific types of mathematical arrays, circuit diagrams, and chemical substrates, all of which are associated with what Brossard in L'Amér calls le laboratoir, a masculinized space forbidden to women. Moreover, the French word for "womb," le ventre, is a masculine noun, whose homophony with the word vendre, "to sell," suggests not only man's appropriation of the female anatomy, but also man's subsequent prostitution of it. Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship points out that the history of sociocultural law begins with exogamy, the exchange of women—an exchange coeval with language, the exchange of words. Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One goes on to observe that both systems of exchange occur only amongst men in, what she calls, an "hom(m)o-sexual monopoly," a monopoly that not only denies women any control over such exchanges, but also places the female body under erasure so that it may be subsequently transformed into a sign invested with the value of a (re)productive commodity. Women who participate in this hom(m)o-sexualeconomy are, according to Irigaray, rendered indifférentes, undifferentiated, in that they have no right to their own sexual identity, only to masculine definitions of it.
Femininity is merely fabricated by men through language, through the symbolic order, and is then reiterated by women, especially by mothers, who remain unwittingly complicit in this patriarchal project:
Mothers are essential to its (re)production[….] Their responsibility is to maintain the social order without intervening so as to change it. Their products are legal tender in that order, moreover, only if they are marked with the name of the father, only if they are recognized within his law: that is, only insofar as they are appropriated by him.
Brossard's narrator retraces this theoretical framework poetically by pointing out that such appropriation always implies an arbitrary declaration of ownership, a linguistic act of violence performed upon the body—an act reserved only for the male: "[h]e took possession of the child as of a word in the dictionary" writes the narrator, who denounces "[p]atriarchal mothers able only to initiate their daughters to a man"—mothers who willingly participate in what Irigaray calls "la mascarade," a false femininity that permits the mother to experience desire only as it is prescribed by the desires of the father. Brossard's narrator emphasizes that "[e]very distinction which already takes away her body and her senses […] by force of words keeps her at the other end, exiled, brought forth from him, aborted." The killing of the womb by the narrator therefore becomes the dominant metaphor for the killing of an inauthentic self, one whose reproductive function has been historically subject to masculine control.
Brossard's text demonstrates that linguistic activity has always been intimately connected with man's oppression of woman and that any attempt to do violence to such oppression necessarily entails an attempt to do violence to discourse: "[t]he biological mother isn't killed without a simultaneous explosion of fiction, ideology, utterance." The exclusion of woman from any condition of reproductive autonomy is directly correlated with her exclusion from any condition of discursive independence: she is acknowledged as a subject only insofar as she is subject to a male, who relegates her to the function of a mere mother, an exploited childbearer, a woman "motherhoodwinked" and then written off as a pretext for hom(m)o-sexual relationships among men. Independent exchanges conducted solely among women are, according to Irigaray, always repressed within this hom(m)o-sexual economy because such female relationships, particularly acts of lesbianism, necessarily imply a woman's rejection of her own commodification, and this rejection requires that men reappropriate the lesbian experience by interpreting it as a pathological, masculine behaviour. Women are forbidden to relate independently to each other, to indulge in "free association," so to speak; consequently, there exists a linguistic void between patriarchal mothers, a void that Brossard's narrator describes as "the domestic silence" and "the senseless grammar." Irigaray proposes that, in order to disrupt this masculine monopoly on exchange, a woman must reject la mascarade of imposed exogamy, of imposed language, in order to adopt an aesthetic of endogamous excess, an aesthetic that allows women to interact with each other, both physically and discursively, outside the restrictive scrutiny of masculine authority.
Brossard's text certainly embodies this aesthetic manifesto and demonstrates that, while phallogocentric ideology enforces an established schism between a woman's body and a woman's language, placing both under masculine control, a lesbian experience can defy this control by imbricating the poetic and the erotic. Writing within such an aesthetic paradigm becomes for Brossard's narrator: "[a]n exercise in deconditioning that leads me to acknowledge my own legitimacy"—"[t]he means by which every woman tries to exist, to be illegitimate no more." With this utterance. Brossard's narrator violates the univocity of phallogocentric signification by blurring the definitions for "legitimate" and "illegitimate." The word "legitimacy," derived from the Latin word for "law," lex, signifies both the state of being born into wedlock and the state of being accordant with legal regulations. These two states of being are synonymous with respect to women: to be involved in either state is to undergo the feminine version of bastardization, to be placed in an alienating, familial structure that is illegitimate in the sense that it is both spurious and false, misrepresenting sexual difference while denying women the possibility of any intercourse with each other: "[t]o submit to the father (in body) or representation […] brings every woman back to her illegitimacy." Brossard elaborates her point in a 1981 Broadsides interview: "[t]he fact of not existing for a man is the worst thing that can happen to him"; "[b]ut that is just what men have insisted about women, that they don't exist": "[w]e need to legitimate our own existence". Paradoxically, legitimacy for the illegitimate women lies in committing a crime, in killing the womb, in literally breaking the letter of the law.
Brossard's text uses syntactical fragmentation, disrupted sentences and textual lacunae. "[s]harp words, full of gaps," in order to stage this criminal activity allegorically: after all, the word "sentence" is not only a linguistic term for a syntagmatic chain that obeys grammatical rules, but also a legal term for a judgement that prescribes a time of punishing imprisonment. Brossard's narrator tries to break out of this linguistic prison, the sentence, in order to resuscitate the original, erotic connotations of the word "sentence," a signifier derived from the Latin verb sentire, "to feel." The text disobeys syntactic rules, in part through its apparent abuse of punctuation: the period, for example, does not consistently break up the text into discrete, syntactic units, each having a predicate structure; instead, the period frequently breaks up the text into fragments determined more by the rhythm of speech than by the meaning of words. The period is in this way transformed from a masculine indicator of resolute completion to a feminine indicator of rhythmic suspension: "period" in fact intricates within its own definition both the processes of the written text and the processes of the feminine body. Such a breaking of grammatical law does not result in mere senselessness, however, but expands the established parameters that restrict discourse to a utilitarian function: the transmission of univocal meaning.
When Brossard's narrator writes that, "[i]f it weren't lesbian, this text would make no sense at all," she acknowledges that within the hom(m)o-sexual monopoly her text must appear relatively unintelligible since it violates the predominant standard of phallogocentric exchange against which all discourse is judged—the phallus, the law of the father, with its formulaic production of fixed meaning. Brossard's text, however, subscribes to an altogether different system of exchange, a system that concentrates more upon the material corporeality of writing than upon the efficient production of meaning. Steve McCaffery in North of Intention defines meaning as profit earned through the exchange of language's material elements, the graphemic, the phonetic, the gesticulative, all of which must be expended, withdrawn, dematerialized, in order for meaning to be foregrounded. McCaffery borrows the terminology of George Bataille in order to distinguish between a "restricted economy" and a "general economy," the former maximizing meaning's production at the expense of language's materiality, the latter maximizing language's materiality at the expense of meaning's production. Within the restricted economy, the message is more important than the medium; within the general economy, the medium is itself the message, albeit one that may appear incomprehensible. Michelle H. Richman in Reacting Georges Bataille points out that the restricted economy sustains itself by asserting a monologic relationship between signifier and signified, by insisting that each word has no more than one signification. Whereas the restricted economy privileges content over form, referentiality over non-referentiality, intentionality over non-intentionality, monosemy over polysemy, the general economy disrupts such hierarchization through an excess expenditure of linguistic material.
Brossard's text demonstrates that phallogocentricity exemplifies the operation of a restricted economy because masculine discourses valourize the monosemic, referential function of language: just as women are reduced to objects of utilitarian value, so also is language reduced to the status of an exogamic commodity—exogamic, in the sense that language must mediate reference to an extra-linguistic domain rather than disperse reference across an intra-linguistic domain. Brossard in "Corps d'Energie/Rituels d'Ecriture" responds to the restricted economy of phallogocentricity by resorting to four "rituals," among them "the ritual of sliding," a ritual that emphasizes the materiality of language—a ritual that "consists […] in concentrating sufficiently long on words (their sonority, their orthography, their usual sense, their potential polysemy, their etymology) in order to seize all the nuance and potentiality, to do this until the forces that work in us stage a scene that is absolutely unpredictable." Auto-referential violence in L'Amèr may therefore be seen to represent an endogamous activity that challenges not only female commodification, but also linguistic commodification. Brossard's text participates in the general economy by drawing particular attention to the material corporeality of the words written upon the page: what the narrator variously calls the "[d]omesticated symbol," the "calligraphic alphabet of […] childhood," the "acid [that] has begun to soak into the paper of the book." Within the context of the restricted economy, the lesbian text does not simply make a nuisance of itself, but comes to make a new sense of its self.
Brossard's text demonstrates that any attempt to preserve the body of woman from phallogocentric exploitation implies that the materials of language must also be preserved from such exploitation. The word "material" recurs frequently within the text since the etymological derivation for the word "material" is also the Latin word for "mother," mater. Irigaray in The Speculum of the Other Woman points out that this historical synonymy between matter and mater stems directly from the platonic insistence that materiality, like maternity, represents nothing more than passive receptivity to an essentially masculine power. Women and language, like all forms of matter, have been traditionally represented as the amorphous substrate that awaits definition by men. Within the terminology of L'Amèr, women have become "avide de mots"—translated "av(o)id for words": women are "a void" in that they are infinitely receptive to a language extrinsic to their gender; they are "a void" in that they are completely empty of any language intrinsic to their gender; and they are "avid" in that they are eager to obtain independent access to a linguistic alternative. Brossard's narrator suggests that such an alternative lies in the creation of a purely feminine, linguistic space that preserves both the body of woman and the materiality of language from phallogocentric exploitation—"a clandestine space where every law is subordinate to the imaginary," a space that exceeds the parameters of the restricted economy's symbolic order. Brossard explains in the Broadsides interview:
Things can happen in your body, in sour skin, but as long as you cannot create a satisfactory syntactic environment for words of emotion you can be devoured by them. You can vanish in a sea of silence or disintegrate in a patriarchal society. For me to use words is not only a matter of expressing myself, but also a way to produce a new territory, a new space, a new environment for my body as a skin able to transform and be transformed by language.
Brossard's text places itself in explicit opposition to materialism, to the unchecked appropriation of mat(t)er, and points toward a new materialism, toward the unexploitive celebration of mat(t)er. "Materialism is," in either case, "reached only by the symbolic route"; language in effect provides the for(u)m for the political agenda.
Brossard's text opens this new, generic space for feminine speech, in part by disrupting the generic categories that already exist within the restricted economy. Brossard in the Broadsides interview describes her text as "une fiction théorctique," a conflation of two, historically antagonistic, genres: the philosophical and the literary. Frederic Jameson in "Magical Narratives" points out that a genre is a species of social code, a prescribed literary structure that attempts with varying degrees of success to impose interpretive parameters upon the reader, to devise a formula for the automatic exclusion of all but one response to a given literary utterance. Genre is therefore merely another manifestation of the restricted economy's desire for authoritative meaning. Brossard's text, however, defies the monosemic imperialism of genre in order to produce a new, elusive "genre" that makes a virtue of polysemic rebellion. Brossard's text intersplices fragments of domestic biography with fragments of academic explication and, in doing so, undermines generic convention and rhetorical coherency, both of which have traditionally ensured the conveyance of monosemic expression: "[a]ll convention subjugated, it's delirious to approach matter like a conversation dispersing the institution." Within L'Amèr, the French word for "delirious," délirant is used in a context that suggests the neologistic verb délire, "to unread"; consequently, Brossard's delirious attack upon generic convention implies an act of unreading, of deconstruction, that may at first appear essentially hysterical to a reader accustomed to a purely referential discourse; nevertheless, the subversion of genre is intentionally political. Brossard's narrator writes that "the extent to which the gap between fiction and theory is reduced, the ideological field is eaten up"; the relentless disintegration of generic boundaries implies a directly proportional disintegration of phallogocentric mastery.
Daphne Marlatt in "Theorizing Fiction Theory" observes that "fiction theory" is "a corrective lens which helps us see through the […] fictions which have […] constructed the very 'nature' of woman," but "this is not to say that fiction theory is busy constructing a new ideology, a new 'line,'" for being "suspicious of correct lines […], it enters a field where the 'seer' not only writes it like she sees it but says where she is seeing from—and with whom (now) and for whom (soon to be)." Brossard in The Aerial Letter declares: "I must enunciate everything, articulate an inexpressible attitude, one that wants to remake reality endlessly, in order not to founder in its fictive version nor be submerged in sociological anecdote." Brossard's transgression of generic boundaries is correlated with her attempt to destabilize any fixed, monologic division between lived experience and aesthetic representation:
[W]hen I was writing L'Amér, I felt that I had to move reality into fiction because patriarchal reality made no sense and was useless to me. I also had the impression […] that my fictions were reality […] and that from there I could start a theoretical work.
Brossard's disruption of the reified differences between fiction and reality recalls a similar disruption made by Monique Wittig in The Lesbian Body:
Our reality is the fictional as it is socially accepted[….] [W]e possess an entire fiction into which we project ourselves and which is already a possible reality. It is our fiction that validates us.
Brossard and Wittig attempt to expose the masculine fiction of reality so as to reaffirm the feminine reality of fiction: this attempt to use her "fiction" to undermine his "reality," to invert the epistemological hierarchy traditionally maintained between the two terms, parallels the attempt of both writers to examine critically the categorical distinctions between art and life, the poetic and the erotic, text and body. The lesbian aesthetic in effect appears to regard the schism between the poetic (the body of the text) and the erotic (the text of the body) as codified, as essentially generic in structure, and therefore subject to a kind of literary hybridization: text and body can be synthesized so that they become metonymous extensions of each other, become what Brossard's narrator might call a "cortex," a word that suggests not only the biomaterial foundation of consciousness, but also a vascular membrane, like a sheet of either skin or paper, through which biogenetic exchanges can occur; moreover, the word "cortex" also suggests a pun on corps/texte—literally, a body language, an expressive form resistant to the violent abstraction of masculine discourse.
Brossard's narrator attempts to defend the female "cortex" from masculine violence, particularly the violence of the male eye that objectifies woman in order to reaffirm the predominance of male subjectivity. Brossard's narrator in the section entitled "The State of Difference" points out that the schism established by the eye between subject and object provides one of the foundations for the structure of sexual differentiation:
I chose to speak first about his look. Because this is where the perception of difference begins. In this way difference is confirmed and nourished. Science of looking: observation. Exact use of difference: control and mastery of that which is under observation.
This schism between subject and object, between male and female, sustains itself through language, since words are a medium of exchange, a phallogocentric substitute for the direct, physical contact that initially obtains between mother and child. Brossard's narrator points out that, whereas the early relationship with the mother is characterized by both the tactile and the unspoken, the later relationship with the father is characterized by the visual and the spoken; maternal relationships maintain closeness, while paternal relationships maintain distance: "to know him, I need my eyes, I must speak to him"; "[h]e won't let himself be touched." Brossard's narrator points out that entry into language requires that the daughter be divorced from the constant touch of the mother in order to submit to the gaze of the father: "[M]y hand pushing back my mother's body, my mouth parted to organize myself like him[….] Under his eyes. Then to align myself at his side." Brossard's text in effect reiterates the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, who argues that the child experiencing the "Imaginary" during the pre-Oedipal phase of development identifies itself completely with its mother and thus cannot conceptualize either difference or absence; the eventual entry of the child into the "Symbolic," a position of subjectivity within language, occurs during the advent of the Oedipal crisis when the father forbids access to the body of the mother and thus forces the child to repress any continuing experience of the "Imaginary" in order to assume a distinct identity: the entry of the child into language in effect requires submission to the law of the father, to phallogocentricity. Linguistic initiation for the female child entails entry into a subject position already defined in advance by masculine authority. Language establishes the difference between mother and father, male and female, but in the words of Brossard's narrator: "[h]is difference is transformed into systematic power", and "[f]rom this point he secures for himself control of the differences." His vision of the world in effect becomes her version of the world.
Brossard in The Aerial Letter observes that "[t]he image of woman is a foreign body in the eye of man." and she argues that women must refuse to submit to this paternal scopophilia in order to maintain a paradigm that privileges touch over sight. Brossard explains in the Broadsides interview:
What is working most in [the] lesbian sensibility is skin. The skin provides the thought and the thought affects the whole surface of the body. It is through the skin that you catch and transmit energy. The skin is tactile memory. It protects your interiority, your integrity. Your skin works like a synthesizer, transmitting words, emotions, and ideas[….] Imagination is travelling through our skin, all of its surface. A woman's skin sliding on a woman's skin creates a slipperiness in the meaning of words and makes a new version of reality and fiction possible.
Brossard in The Aerial Letter emphasizes that "[t]he imagination travels through the skin," that "[s]kin is energy." and that "[s]kin reflects its origins": "touching […] impresses upon each skin cell that it must work at the emotion of living." Touch, unlike sight, closes the gap between people, between words, and so disrupts a scopophilic system of differentiation. This feminine emphasis upon touch informs the very notion of une fiction théoretique: the word "theory" is derived from the Greek word theorien, "to see," and connotes an epistemology based upon the visual; the word "fiction," however, is derived from the Latin word fingere, "to shape with the hands," and connotes an epistemology based upon the tactile. Brossard's conflation of genres may therefore be seen as an attempt to produce a theoretical discourse that incorporates touch as its fundamental episteme: a "[f]ictional theory" in which "words will have served only in the ultimate embrace."
Brossard in L'Amèr goes on to deconstruct the male gaze most explicitly in the section entitled "Act of the Eye"—a section divided into two parts: the first corresponding to the position of the "eye," the surveying subject; the second part corresponding to the position of the "figure," the surveyed object. The first section's running title begins as "Act of the Eye" and acquires an extra, lexical fragment with each subsequent page until the title ends as "The Violent Act of the Eye on Enamoured Purple Infiltrates Enraptured Unfolding Her." The form of this running title parallels its content: the full title describes metaphorically the project that the eye of the reader must undertake when plotting the gradual expansion of the title across its ten pages. The running title is structured as a progressively unveiled secret, what Roland Barthes in S/Z might call an "hermeneutic sentence," a syntagmatic enigma, whose solution is divulged suspensefully during a series of interruptions or delays. The structure of the title parallels the structure of a striptease: just as the voyeur watches the woman disrobe herself progressively until her naked body is revealed, so also does the reader watch the title unfold itself progressively until its full message is laid bare. Within a scopophilic paradigm, the materiality of both body and text (intersecting at the italicized "Her" in the title) become objectified sources of satisfaction for a voyeuristic appetite; however, Brossard's text undermines the satisfaction of the voyeur, the reader, by overloading the voyeur with textual enigmas that resist reduction to complete solutions and singular perspectives. The first section of "Act of the Eye" is in fact structurally panoptical. Barbara Godard in "L'Amèr or the Exploding Chapter" points out that Brossard's narrator multiplies perspectives by allowing other female writers to make a statement in their own voice about the various operations of the eye: such a "communal feminist text," according to Godard, "denounces the economics of proprietorship on which authorship is based" and instead valourizes an economics of both cooperation and sharing, an economics that emphasizes a plurality of viewpoints. Brossard's narrator in "Act of the Eye" does not submit to the male gaze, but goes on to disrupt it by exploring visual sensation polyvalently, by assuming the vantage point of several kinds of gaze: the darting eye that resists fixing its glance upon a single object of desire; the closed eye that temporarily suspends the gaze in favour of inner meditation; the tearful eye that blurs distinctions between perceived objects; the amorous eye that in the tradition of courtly love establishes a primary bond between lovers; the voyeuristic eye that facilitates the violent objectification of women; the specular eye that sees its own evolving identity reflected in others; the clairvoyant eye that permits a multifaceted perspective of time and space; the staring eye that views the world blankly; the vigilant eye that maintains a close watch upon its own operations; and the transformed eye that represents a chrysalis giving birth to a new consciousness.
The second section of "Act of the Eye" has a series of titles that represent variations upon the word "figure," a word in which body and text again intersect, since "figure" signifies both a feminine physique and a textual trope. The word "figure" suggests that what women have historically regarded as the reality of their own bodies is in fact no more than a metaphorical phantasm conditioned by the male gaze. John Berger in Ways of Seeing writes:
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself[….] And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman[….] Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.
Women are socialized to accept as natural, as realistic, the male perception of their bodies; however, the second section of "Act of the Eye," disrupts this socialization and traces the future evolution of the female body from a "realistic figure," static and recognizable, "the most submissive there is," to a "free figure," dynamic and unrecognizable. Such a free figure eludes sight; she "breaks the contract binding her to figuration"; she disfigures figuration so that such figuration cannot disfigure her. Brossard's narrator resists being reduced to the kind of image both depicted on the cover of L'Amèr and contemplated in the segment entitled "The Figurine"—an image of the Venus of Willendorf, a terra cotta statue of a woman, whose lack of both eyes and mouth, a lack offset by the contrasting exaggeration of her breasts and belly, represents for the narrator a blind, speechless female imprisoned within a primitive mythology of maternal fecundity. Brossard's text tries to escape the imprisonment of reproduction by suggesting an alternative textuality that endows women with discursive autonomy.
Brossard's writing stresses that any attempt made by women to disrupt a restricted economy based upon exogamic exchange requires that women participate both physically and discursively in a general economy based upon endogamous exchange. Brossard's narrator argues that "[i]t is while caressing the body of another woman over its entire living surface that she kills the mother" and that, "if she wants to survive, a woman must assert herself in reality and become recognized as symbolic mother: incestuous in power, but inaccessible sexually for reproduction." The narrator's denunciation of patriarchal mothers as nothing more than "maternal clowns" and "filles du roi" heralds the lesbian celebration of metaphorical "daughter mothers" who obliterate patriarchal forms of differentiation, mothers who "experience bliss in the ultimate intercourse like two signifiers and metamorphose so mutually that they contain a single meaning"—mothers for whom the jouissance of body and the jouissance of language are no longer disjoined. The very term "daughter mother" suggests a metaphorical fusion of the female child with the female parent, a fusion reminiscent of a pre-Oedipal psychology. Brossard's term "daughter mother" also suggests a mother who can be her own daughter, a woman who can "engender" herself so to speak, and thus remain free from masculine definitions of the feminine. Moreover, Brossard's term suggests an exclusively female economy, a purely matrilineal heritage "without intermediary without interruption," a heritage effaced by the historical valourization of masculine primogeniture. The "daughter mother" thus corresponds with not only the pre-Oedipal fusion of mother and child, but also implies a form of maternity that must have existed before the reproductive commodification of mothers by fathers.
Brossard's narrator attempts to revive this maternal origin forgotten by masculine history: in the section entitled "The Vegetation," she undergoes a figurative, evolutionary retrogression in order to move from culture to nature, from the city to the jungle, from the "civilized" world of masculinity to the "uncivilized" world of femininity—from the conscious mind that represses to the unconscious mind that is repressed. This attempt to return to a prehistoric epoch unconditioned by patriarchal civilization parallels the attempt to return to a childhood psychology unconditioned by patriarchal feminization—a return seen to be necessary for acquiring discursive autonomy:
None of what appears in front of me could be nourished or even in a state of being if I didn't break in from the margin where I have plunged within myself not the woman but the little girl the mutilated girl resisting the woman.
Such an assertion recalls the narrator's earlier description of herself as an infant touching the mouth of her mother, an act that represents an erotic allegory for the narrator's archaeological endeavour:
I open her mouth with thumb and index finger. The struggle begins in silence. The search. I part her lips[….] I have to see for my own ends. She lets me do it, I don't threaten any part of her true identity yet. She's my m ther, she knows it and I am supposed to know it just as well. Her mouth like an essential and vital egg, ambiguous. In the beginning. AAAAA.
The signifier "m ther" in the English text is the translation of the signifier "m're" in the French text, and within both cases the form of the signifier concretizes its content: the erasure of the first vowel does violence to the word by rendering the word unpronounceable, thus suggesting that this maternal, pre-linguistic figure cannot be incorporated into a phallogocentric signifying practice without suffering distortion. The originary "m ther" resists being definitively articulated and thus appears linguistically transcendent, ineffable; however, this feminine ineffability differs in character from the masculine ineffability of God, the originary father. God is the Word, the first signifier, monosemic and transcendental, inaccessible to phallogocentric discourse, yet nevertheless subtending it; the archaic mother, on the other hand, is not so much a signifier as the material precondition for signification: in the beginning is not so much the word as "the fictional character of the first A," the "dream of the letter in the beginning." "the a the acme the ancient('s) course"—in other words, the "AAAAA," a spontaneous, primal cry, devoid of meaning and thus pregnant with a potential multiplicity of meanings. Whereas God is understood as a site of monosemic transcendence that ensures the semantic closure of the signifying system, the archaic mother is understood as a site of polysemic transcendence that ensures the semantic aperture of the signifying system. Whereas God is understood as a self-present identity; the archaic mother is: "Amazon. Her identity is nut single."
Abby Wettan Kleinbaum in The War Against the Amazons observes that, historically, the image of the Amazon does not serve to glorify woman; instead, the Amazon has been used by "male authors, artists, and political leaders to enhance their own perception of themselves as historically significant."
Patriarchy has portrayed the Amazons as a matriarchal society, whose ritual of initiation requires that a woman emulate the male physique by cutting off one of her breasts in order to wield a longbow more comfortably: the stories about the inevitable defeat of such militant women, such masculine pretenders, serves only to certify for men the preeminence of an authentic masculinity. Brossard's text revises the terms of reference for this myth so that the myth might conform more closely to a lesbian aesthetic that regards the Amazon as a connotation for a feminist utopia, a Utopia of purely independent women who do not wish to imitate men so much as resist their influence.
Self-inflicted mastectomy in this lesbian context becomes a metaphorical act that parallels the self-inflicted hysterectomy performed by Brossard's narrator: both acts of violence symbolize the rejection of maternal subservience to patriarchy, not a reification of such patriarchy. Just as Brossard's narrator wishes to discard the burden of her womb, her "backpack," so also does she wish "[t]o set our breasts ablaze," to "[s]our milk," so that "breasts will no longer smother anybody," no longer make women subservient to a nurturing function; moreover, just as the loss of the breast permits the Amazon to use a masculine weapon more effectively against men, so also does the loss of the uterus permit Brossard's narrator to deploy a phallogocentric language more effectively against its masters: whereas such violence in the phallic myth is portrayed as an aggressive act, such violence in the lesbian myth is portrayed as a defensive act.
Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig in Lesbian Peoples in fact define the word "Amazon" by relating a pagan myth of origins, in which an edenic age declines with the advent of motherhood:
[W]ith the settlement of the first cities, many companion lovers disrupted the original harmony and called themselves mothers[….] [A]mazon meant, for them, daughter, eternal child, she who does not assume her destiny. Amazons were banished from the cities of the mothers. [Amazons] became […] violent […] and fought to defend harmony. For them the ancient name […] had retained its full meaning.
Wittig and Zeig use this narrative to suggest that the status of the Amazon corresponds to the status of Eve before the Fall, before receiving the divine punishment of childbirth. Within Brossard's text, the Amazon is a militant "daughter mother," who yearns to reclaim a feminine history suppressed by patriarchy; however, the dichotomy between the Amazonian and the maternal is not so sharply demarcated as it is in the case of Wittig and Zeig, since Brossard's narrator is herself a mother of a daughter—albeit a lesbian mother who rejects any form of patriarchal indoctrination. Moreover, the narrator's heterosexual sister calls to mind Amazonian imagery by virtue of her breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy; within this case, Brossard's narrator realize that both the "daughter mother" and the patriarchal mother suffer disfiguration under patriarchy—although in qualitatively different ways, the former kind of mother "[a]mputating oneself", the latter kind of mother "[a]mputated." Whereas the "daughter mother" represents a "woman surgeon" who actively excises from her body the masculine influence that debilitates her, the patriarchal mother represents a "white bride" who passively relinquishes her body to the masculine influence that debilitates her. Brossard's narrator responds to the suffering of patriarchal mothers, a suffering for which they are not entirely responsible, by trying ultimately to inscribe herself "in the practice of a surgery sympathetic to […] differences."
Such Amazonian imagery may at first glance appear to be a problematic iconography for a feminist aesthetic since the very militancy of the Amazon suggests overtones of masculine combativeness: after all, the classical legend depicts Amazons kidnapping men, appropriating their masculine reproductive function in order to sustain a female society. Cixous in The Newly Born Woman addresses this potential problem by pointing out that Amazons do not kill, but capture men alive, only to liberate them again:
Amazons don't make war for reasons that men understand[….] The Amazons go around gathering men[….] Defeating, yes, but in order to espouse. It is the invention of a union that is the opposite of rape[….] Although the Amazons have broken off from the masculine world and created another State, they are in the minority[….] And to get what they want from the others, they still must come and conquer, snatch it away; they have to venture onto the other side in an exchange where the terms are still dictated by masculine law, by men's behavior and their codes. For a free woman, there can be no relationship with men other than war[….] To be an Amazon is to […] repeat the act that proves or symbolizes that she is not captive or submissive to a man[….] He dominates to destroy. She dominates to not be dominated; she dominates the dominator to destroy the space of domination.
According to Cixous, Amazonian violence is self-reflexive; it is paradoxically a violence needed to destroy the necessity of violence. The violence in the form of Brossard's text may therefore be seen as an Amazonian allegory for the feminine entry into a masculine territory, where the narrator must do violence to the violence of discourse in order to obliterate violence and invigorate language.
When Brossard's narrator says that, "[c]aught in the whirlpool, the wave, the dread, the pallor, I write," she points out that to express herself within a lesbian aesthetic is not without risks: "[t]o write I am a woman is heavy with consequences," possibly because it may inadvertently repeat a masculine project by opening the way to what Lola Lemire Tostevin in "Reading After the (Writing) Fact calls "vulvalogo-centricity," the displacement of the law of the father with a new law of the mother. Brossard's narrator writes that "[t]he sisterhood of women is the ultimate test of human solidarity laying itself open to another beginning of delusions of grandeur"—but while the narrator worries whether or not her book is going to be "the product of a fever or of a major exercise in survival," her text demonstrates that she does not wish to repeat the masculine, oppositional structures of difference, but wishes instead to disrupt these differences in order to free women from masculine conditioning:
I am working so that the convulsive habit of initiating girls to the male as in a contemporary practice of lobotomy will be lost. I want to see in fact the form of women organizing in the trajectory of the species.
Brossard does not reaffirm feminine suffering, but rejects such ineffectual pain: "Je sais que pour beaucoup de femmes la souffrance est l'origine de l'écriture; pour moi, l'écriture est à l'origine de l'écriture"; to Brossard, feminine writing disrupts the masculine "practice of lobotomy" by disrupting discourse, by refusing an economy of exogamic exchange while simultaneously embracing an economy of endogamous exchange: she protects both body and text from a purely utilitarian function by celebrating their materiality instead of exploiting it, and she posits a way of knowing that does not merely restrict itself to metaphors of sight, but incorporates the entire body in its epistemology. Brossard disarms phallogocentric language, disarms such words as "mother" and "woman" and "figure" so that they can no longer be used as masculine weapons: after all, words such as these harm others.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3290
SOURCE: "Modernity and Lesbian Identity in the Later Works of Nicole Brossard," in Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism, edited by Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope, Blackwell, 1993, pp. 199-207.
[In the following essay, Rosenfeld discusses Brossard's Amantes and Picture Theory to show that "Nicole Brossard's postmodernism is linked inextricably to her lesbian-feminist vision of the world."]
Although there is no unique style that characterizes the work of all lesbian writers, it is not surprising that Nicole Brossard, the most famous lesbian poet of contemporary Quebec, should also be "resolutely modern" in her textual practice. A writer who seeks to convey a way of life that runs counter to the norms and values of the dominant culture is likely also to challenge the institutions that perpetuate those norms: the literary canon and the language of tradition. In an informative book entitled Les mots et les femmes, Marina Yaguello emphasizes the priority of the masculine over the feminine gender in French grammar; she demonstrates moreover how French words in the course of history have acquired meanings that convey negative images of women. Brossard's early awareness that language, as a system of communication, transmits the cultural codes of a society accounts for her faith in the transformative power of experimental writing even in the early 1970s, when the liberation of Quebec still aroused her deepest feelings. Not until the middle of that decade, when the author had chosen to identify as a feminist and as a lesbian, did she move beyond the theories of "new writing" to struggle with other women against the sexism and restrictiveness of the official language. Indeed it is this quest for a medium of expression outside of the mainstream that elucidates the intersection between Brossard's lesbian-feminist identity and her postmodernism.
Because the meanings of words such as "modernism," "modernity" and "postmodernism" change according to the culture in which they are defined, a brief history of these movements from a francophone perspective might be in order here. Since modernité grew out of modernism, there is no visible demarcation line that separates these two periods from each other.
In early twentieth-century France, a shift in attitude toward the arts began to manifest itself. Apollinaire, with his unusual poetry, epitomized this new spirit and its rejection of art's mimetic approach to nature. Similarly, by reducing all shapes to their geometric components, experimental painters such as Braque and Picasso transformed the concepts of space and of the human figure. Cubism with its multiplicity of perspectives also influenced the younger generation of poets to avoid ordinary descriptions. Instead of reproducing exterior reality, they juxtaposed images without regard to logic and thus communicated the rapidity of the modern age. In 1916 the Dadaists, expressing the utter confusion of a world at war, cast systematic doubt on everything except chance. A few years after the end of the hostilities, the surrealists, having overcome the initial nihilism of Dada, tried to revitalize the language, impoverished by the mediocre fiction of that period. Attentive to their stream of thought, the surrealists would give free play to the association of words whose unusual combinations could explode in a brilliant image. With its free-flowing imagery and its minimum of preconceived ideas, surrealism increased the autonomy of the readers as interpreters of poetry.
The novel, however, with a few exceptions, continued to stagnate. In 1932 Nathalie Sarraute began to jot down the minute inner movements, the impulses, the conflicting sentiments which bump against each other on the threshold of consciousness in L'Ere du soupçon. By illuminating the profusion of sensations that often accompany, follow, or precede a dialogue, Sarraute invited her readers to experience for themselves the inner dramas of her anonymous people. But the preoccupation of the author of Tropisms with the subterranean movements that form an integral part of everyone's existence made it necessary for her to challenge the traditional novel with its individualized characters, its linear plots, its chronological time. Thanks to her lonely experimentations, Sarraute became a pioneer of the nouveau roman.
In the novels of Robbe-Grillet, objects, passions and different versions of the same event are presented to the reader through the eyes of a narrator whose vision is both limited and fragmented. Unlike the surrealists, who sought to attain a higher form of reality by fusing the states of dream and of wakefulness, the new novelists, in true postmodern fashion, insisted on the purely fictional character of their work. Similarly, in Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes underscored the self-reflective nature of postmodern writing. In a world divided by factionalism, conflicts, and strife, "alienated writing" would seek its own self-transcendence, its own peculiarities, sounds, and functions, just as the nouveau roman had no other reality outside of its own narrative.
It was in the 1960s that the ideas of postmodernism gained ground in Quebec, precisely at the time of its cultural revolution, a period often referred to as La Révolution Tranquille. Given Brossard's early adherence to the principles of modernity, it is not surprising that Un livre, her first novel, should read like an archetype of the nouveau roman in Quebec. For, unlike many other Quebec novels of that period, which dealt with the land, the snow, the ever-increasing family, this book questioned the relationship between fiction and reality, between words and meanings, between the printed lines and the blank spaces. But the more the text turned inward, the more the female narrator vanished from the scene.
In this essay I plan to show the relation between Brossard's identity as a lesbian and her formalist approach to writing in two of her later works: in Amantes, translated as Lovhers, and in Picture Theory. From that time onward Brossard was able to distill her experience as a lesbian in such a way that her words communicate not only her personal desire but the essence of sapphic love.
An avant-garde composition consisting of poems and prose passages, Amantes deals with the lovemaking of four lesbians who are staying at the Barbizon Hotel for women and who learn to articulate their feelings as well as their thoughts by associating with their own kind. To evoke the atmosphere of this female space, Brossard experiments with both form and typography. Divided into five parts by means of black and gray pages, illustrated with photographs of the New York skyline, and printed with a variety of types—capital letters, small letters, italics, blank spaces—this book immediately challenges our reading habits as well as the unidirectional character of patriarchal systems of thought. Similarly, the traditional concept of literature as a succession of masterpieces created in isolation by individual geniuses has given way to a more communal vision of literary creation. That is why numerous quotations from other lesbian writers—Adrienne Rich, Monique Wittig, Louky Bersianik—embellish Amantes.
By showing how the subversive love between two women is related to their quest for a new language, Brossard also brings out the connection between lesbianism and postmodernism. Unlike traditional literature, whose texts refer for the most part to an objective reality, the words of Amantes create their own mental space. In fact what characterizes the writing of this book is the breaking up of the sentence with its subject, verb, predicate sequence into word-clusters, units that are no longer attached to one another by conjunctions, adverbs or punctuation:
concentrées dans l'île amoureuses
picture theory / juillet la mer
dire l'intention des langues
If the reader tries in vain to restore the grammatical order, it is because postmodern writing rejects the determinism that underlies the traditional narrative form. To express an open-ended reality, one that mirrors the dreams, hopes, and desires of women-loving women, the lesbian writer must also redefine all the words that have been contaminated by centuries of patriarchal ideology.
For example, the concept of memory, to which Brossard devotes a section entitled MA MEMOIRE D'(AMOUR), is a word that needed to be reexamined because the official memory, by ignoring or maligning women, has separated us from each other and from our past. Consequently Brossard links the nostalgic quest for our history to the physical love between women. Moreover, unlike the word that has been restricted in the dictionaries of the dominant culture to mean "remembrance of past events," memory in the work of Brossard also connotes the arrival of a bright future, a Utopian future which helps women to live in the present:
la nuit venue lorsque de mèche
nos fronts se souviennent des plus belles
délinquances, on bouge un peu la main
pour que s'ouvre sous nos yeux
la mémoire agile des filles de l'utopie
se déplaçant en italique
ou en une fresque vers toutes les issues
Likewise, in order to describe the pleasure of lesbianism without resorting to heterosexual language, Brossard found it necessary to alter the definition of the word skin. Unlike the dominant sexuality with its emphasis on penile penetration, lesbian loving has no single sensual center. Disproving the image of superficiality that the mainstream culture has given to the expression "only skin deep," Brossard illustrates how "a woman's skin sliding on a woman's skin creates a slipperiness in the meaning of words and makes a new version of reality and fiction possible." In Amantes, the knowledge derived from sensations of taste and touch enables the lesbian lovers to rediscover a multidimensional language.
If Brossard found it necessary as a lesbian writer to question grammatical structures and dictionaries, as a devotee of modernité she felt the need to reject traditional writing with its linear time and its binary system of opposition: man/woman, culture/nature, activity/passivity, intellect/feeling. It is precisely the author's rebellion against these manifestations of the "straight" mentality that accounts for the paramount importance of the spiral in her work from L'Amèr onward. This shape, which appears in everything from sea-shells to nebulas, from the flight of birds to the movement of planets and stars, enables the female writer to explore new analogies, new rhythms, a new way of relating with the world and of being. In postmodern texts by women each spiral repeats the same words but in so doing adds another element to the previous notation, thus advancing the turn of the coil every time. For example, the following spiral of Amantes brings out in a rhythmical flow of words the joy of yielding to temptation:
j'ai succombé à toutes les visions
séduite, surface, série et sérieuse
j'ai succombé á la vision claire
des végétations et des événements matinales,…
j'ai succombé à l'écho, au retour,
à la répétition. au commencement
des vertébres était la durée
une réplique essentielle à tout instant
dans la joie que j'ai de toi,…
Another spiral of that book makes the connection between the texture of the words and the taste of a kiss:
… et nous imaginons de nouvelles moeurs avec ces bouches mêmes qui savent tenir un discours, les nôtres au goût des mots au goût du baiser …
les faits sont tels que le projet du texte et le texte de projet s'accomplissent au goût des mots, au goût du baiser, je sais que tu m'es réelle / alors
A synthesis of all of Brossard's previous books, Picture Theory resumes some of the major themes of Amantes, but it delves more deeply than the love poems into the issue of lesbianism and writing. One of the reasons why Brossard insists so vehemently on this question is her belief that women's literary expression is of paramount importance because it can change the world. However, in order to achieve this transformation, lesbians should be at the origin of the meaning they give to their lives. For the capacity to name and redefine the world depends largely on our place in the language. Since the French idiom, with its unequal gender structure, mirrors the heterosexist appropriation of the class of women by the class of men, Brossard chose lesbianism not only because she passionately loves people of her own sex, but because she seeks to alter the language.
Written from a lesbian-feminist perspective, Picture Theory beckons the reader to travel through five different areas of artistic creation, the five chapters that constitute the book. "L'Ordinaire" introduces us to the characters of the novel as well as to its spiral composition. "La Perspective" evokes the relationship between the female narrator and Claire Dérive, her lover. The third chapter, entitled "L'Emotion," underscores the sense of well-being that characterizes feminist utopias, especially when Amazons show solidarity with one another in pursuit of common goals. "La Pensée," the most important chapter in the book, announces the arrival of a sister poet, a contemporary Sappho whose genius will enable her to reshape the language. In the last chapter, this dreamlike image of the poet comes into clear focus; she is emulated by other women, for she can interact with them by means of the hologram that helps to illuminate aspects of the associative memory and of other thought processes.
In an interview with the lesbian-feminist journal Vlasta published five years ago, Brossard emphasized the significance of expressing one's personal truth. But the difficulty of articulating our intimate thoughts in patriarchal societies accounts for the importance the author attaches to the solidarity of women. It is not surprising therefore that the female characters of Picture Theory acquire their sense of self by living together one summer in a communal setting. Breathing the sea air of a holiday resort on the New England coast, they discuss their youth, the stilted images of women in mainstream films, the danger of confusing "father time" and the time of Amazon friendships. "… Nous sommes cinq au lever du soleil à … voir éperdument la mer, prononçant d'une manière atonale des phrases complètes et abstraites liant la vie et la parole dans l'heure horizontale." The frequent use of the feminine plural indicates not only that the women are pooling their energies but also that they challenge one another to communicate their ideas, ideas which will give them a new sense of being in the culture: "Je disais …" noted the lesbian narrator "… qu'un témoignage utopique de notre part pouvait stimuler en nous une qualité d'émotion propice à notre insertion dans l'histoire."
When preceded by the definite article, the word histoire often denotes that branch of learning which relates and analyzes the "important events" of the life of a people. However, since meanings, values, and notions of reality have been shaped by centuries of patriarchal cultures, women as a class have been excluded from this narrative. While certain francophone feminists seek to inscribe a female presence into the language by using such terms as hystoire, écrivaine, auteure, Brossard tends to redefine existing words and thus to produce a form of writing that breaks the continuity of patriarchal culture. As our experiences and perceptions have no credibility in that culture, the attempt to translate into words those "fictions" that are our realities becomes a utopian venture. In Brossard's Picture Theory, the utopian quest arouses a quality of emotion conducive to women's insertion into history, that word having acquired the dual meaning of a female presence here and now as well as in the future.
But if women can become part of history by means of their communal efforts, it is lesbianism that enables them to express their own view of the world in new and modernistic terms. One of the ways in which the author links the themes of sapphic love and language is through the world of the senses. Surface/skin, in Amantes, constitutes an avenue of approach to sensuous and verbal knowledge. In Picture Theory, however, the vast expanse of touching is explored to attain the body of the beloved as well as the art of writing: "sa main me touchait comme une raison / écrire allait devenir un souci permanent." If Michèle Vallée, the narrator, and her lover, Claire Dérive, choose words for their sound and their evocative power rather than for their meaning, it is because they do not wish to see their poetry retrieved by existing cultural institutions:
je reprenais les sons
autour de sa bouche, les liaisons
presque sans accent la fièvre sonore
Although Amantes and Picture Theory both link lesbian sexuality to language and to literature, it is the latter book that brings together lesbian poetry and postmodernism. In the arts this quest for new forms is related to the concept of abstraction. To accelerate her progress toward that goal, the narrator of Picture Theory uses a vocabulary rich in the symbolist tradition: forest, water, sea, angel, helmet. The following poem, for example, conjures up a scene of freshness that is at once lesbian and abstract:
Claire Dérive est entrée dans la forêt
et les songes emportée par la vision
du temps qui s'écoule entre ses lèvres
elle entend la pluie qui danse sur son casque
elle traverse la forêt ruisselante
et déterminée comme l'est sa bouche
Claire Dérive est dans la rosée
l'horizon, allongée entre mes cuisses
Exposed at the end of the second chapter to "l'abstraction vitale," the lesbian lovers have become symbolic characters, mythical figures who announce the coming of a poetess: "her through whom anything can happen."
The arrival for the first time in history of a female subject in the language is evoked in different ways: plays on words, scene shifts without transition, travels back and forth between Paris, Montreal, and Curaçao. But more important than these signs of modernity in announcing the advent of the female poet who "makes contact" is the spiral, a form that Brossard relates to lesbian sensibility. In Picture Theory, as in Amantes, phrases and analogous sentences build on each other to form an ever-widening curve, a spiral that challenges the linear structure of traditional fiction even as it favors the development of the texts' lesbian-feminist themes. "C'est elle," writes the narrator of Picture Theory as she envisions the coming of the female author, "il faudrait la voir venir, virtuelle à l'infini," "je la vois venir," "je la vois venir les femmes synchrones au matin chaque fois plus nombreuse," "je la vois venir dans l'angle lorsque la phrase se divise en deux." Similarly the repetition of the phrase "peau la langue monte au cerveau" takes on the quality of a chant, a recitative which also announces the arrival of her who generates meaning in words. Indeed the issue of woman's position in the language looms so large that the spiral now moves in a centripetal manner toward that focal point.
The utopian quest is a major theme linking Picture Theory to Amantes. These two works point to a reimagined space where lesbians live in harmony with each other. Moreover, both novels illustrate the paramount importance of language as a means of expressing female-centered societies. In her transformation of Wittgenstein's picture theory, Brossard has shown how lesbianism challenges the limitations of a philosophy that views the concepts of language and of picture as synonymous terms. Instead of being captive in a two-dimensional model of reality, the lesbians in Brossard discover words while making love, and the radiance that emanates from this lovemaking, like a laser beam, alters the picture into a holographic three-dimensional image.
In Amantes as well as in Picture Theory, Brossard develops a polyvalence of meaning, a new form of writing that communicates the intensity of lesbian relationships as well as the momentous significance of female subjectivity in the language that has excluded women and lesbians as agents of thought and action. Rooted in the present and looking toward the future, Nicole Brossard's postmodernism is linked inextricably to her lesbian-feminist vision of the world.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1174
SOURCE: "The Enigma of Writing," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 6-7, 9.
[In the following review, Parker argues that Brassard's Picture Theory and Mauve Desert "are fine samples of how Brossard integrates the language of current scientific theories and technological advances into an intuitive, utopian vision of a more just future for women, lesbians, and other marginalized groups."]
Thanks to two fairly recent translations, American readers have access to major works of prose fiction by one of Québec's most provocative writers, Nicole Brossard. Picture Theory, a complex, challenging, exuberant, and erotic response to Joyce and Wittgenstein, and Mauve Desert, the first text Brossard is willing to call postmodern, are fine samples of how Brossard integrates the language of current scientific theories and technological advances into an intuitive, utopian vision of a more just future for women, lesbians, and other marginalized groups.
Brossard is an acknowledged leader among those writers whose experimental practices are usually categorized by the term "modernity"; she is also a spokeswoman for the feminist community. Like Adrienne Rich, Brossard received early recognition for the formal expertise of her poetry, and has since won many awards, including the prestigious Prix David for the ensemble of her work, now totalling more than 30 volumes. In addition to poetry, fiction, and theory, of which the most important collection is The Aerial Letter, Brossard cofounded the experimental literary journal La Barre du Jour and the feminist Les Tetes de Pioche, and has collaborated on film and theater projects.
In Picture Theory, her most ambitious work, Brossard explores figures that suggest the indeterminacy and multidimensionality of quantum physics and laser optics, light, vertigo, the spiral, cortex (corps-texte), the hologram, and the horizon. Picture Theory raises epistemological questions in a "desire to unravel the great patriarchal enigma," setting language adrift in an effort to capture the "subliminal" or "generic" woman. Brossard uses holography to figure "mental space for a contemporary vision," working with "potential" forms to "conquer reality, makes it plausible."
As a modernist, Brossard is insistently urban(e): her native Montréal figures in her work as a site of writing and renewal. In Picture Theory she invents "border crossers, radical city dwellers": at their vacation retreat on a coastal island, five "synchronous women" pool their instinctual, artistic, and intellectual resources to "modify the horizon," using "the science of energy." Always transgressive in her thinking and in her writing, Brossard forces her readers to ask hard questions, to negotiate with her the paths between fiction and reality.
The death of Brossard's father in 1982 occasioned an uncharacteristic anguish over her writing. Brossard wrote poetry and pondered translation—issues raised by the dual-language, postcolonial context of Québec, by Brossard's work with her translators, and by her collaboration with Daphne Marlatt. Eventually, Mauve Desert resulted, representing the "postmodern condition," set in the hyperreal and unforgiving southwestern landscape with its bombs and fragile motels, where no window frames the blinding play of light.
Like Escher's hand drawing itself drawing, the text is a self-translation. The hyped-up young narrator criss-crosses the desert at breakneck speed in her mother's Meteor, trying to understand, to "bend reality toward the light," while the translator tries to slip between the words. Translation, like writing, opens up a quantum field of inquiry into words, syntax, grammar, and the production of meaning. Mauve Desert thus focuses on the processes whereby we transform our thoughts and feelings into words, in essence how a writer creates a work of prose fiction, using translation to allegorize writing and reading (interpretation).
Like the heroine of Mauve Desert, Brossard was a philosopher at 15: "Very young, I was already crying over humanity. With every new year I could see it dissolving in hope and in violence." With other writers and artists of a generation that came to consciousness in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s, Brossard rejected the conservative values of the French Canadian tradition, which was based on nostalgia for a mythic agrarian past and obeisance to the Catholic Church. For women this meant compulsory procreation and subservience to patriarchal directives.
The problem for Brossard was how to reinvent (rewrite) a life to correspond to values that, by the mid-1970s, positioned her (as a woman, a feminist, and a lesbian) in direct opposition to the major discourses of the culture. She "would have to venture, body and soul, into a semantic field strewn with countless mines, some already exploded in the form of everyday sexism, others, even more terrifying, the buried mines of misogyny." Along with the terror came a surge of energy, a communal sense of urgency shared with women of many backgrounds, and a perception that "normal" heterosexual lives now seemed incongruous or even surreal.
For the last decade and a half, Brossard's project has been to design a subject-status for the woman writer who must operate in a male-centered communication system. Thus, she invents what she calls "rituals of presence in the language." A guiding spirit of a generation determined to be "resolutely modern," Brossard's unconventional praxis has stood her in good stead as she addresses the problems of creating a space in language—the inherited system of codes and symbols—for the desire of women. Beginning with These Our Mothers or The Exploding Chapter she has created texts that are radical in their approach to gender and sexuality while continuing to deconstruct literary conventions. The next two volumes in her lesbian trilogy, Lovhers and Surfaces of Meaning, continue to attack phallogocentrism and refurbish the imagination. Not only does the chapter on motherhood explode, but so do syntax, grammar, and even words, each of which must be examined for its accretion of patriarchal values and the desire projected by a male libidinal economy.
Brossard's fiction foregrounds writing and bookmaking, playing with typography, problematizing narrative conventions, interfacing visual images, creating books within books. She investigates "surfaces of meaning," black marks on the white page, sometimes figured as skin or screen. Her "virtual" texts resemble holographic images, with narrative elements continuously displaced. The utopian energy that fuels her work has its source in the lesbian body. Relieved of gravity (in both senses) the island/continent of lesbian desire has "aerial roots." With modernist writers Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes as models, she combines a formalist approach with a feminist consciousness, working always "in the light of a woman's gaze." The result is a "writing in the feminine" that blends poetry, theory, and fiction, exploding generic boundaries. Such writing also taps into an erotic substratum that is necessarily creative despite the nightmares, despite a symbolic code that forces women to stutter, and despite the daily violence of women's lives. Brossard believes that anything can happen in writing; it can dismantle the lies, the violence, and lead us out of silence. To intervene through writing is to create an alternate reality. Writing, like reading, is exciting, a privileged act because it permits us to modify our relationship to the world. As a spiritual event, Brossard writes in Mauve Desert, writing helps us "bend the light toward reality."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2964
SOURCE: "An Interview with Nicole Brossard: Montreal, October 1993," in Yale French Studies, No. 87, 1995, pp. 115-21.
[In the following interview, Brossard discusses her relationship with feminism and fiction.]
[Huffer:] I would like to begin by talking about your work both as a writer and a feminist. Since the 1970s you have been a part of the feminist movement as a poet, novelist, editor, essayist. Could you put the history of these various activities in a contemporary context?
[Brossard:] The poet, the novelist, and the feminist are still very active. I am still trying to answer questions about what it means to be a contemporary subject in a civilization about to shift into another dimension. Very early on, I said that I saw myself as an explorer in language and that I was writing to comprehend the society in which I live and the civilization to which I belong. Actually, understanding what goes on means trying to process the double-time in which I feel I am living: on the one hand, a historical linear time-space with familiar patriarchal scenarios such as war, rape, and violence; on the other, a polysemic, polymorphic, polymoral time where the speed and volume of information erase depth of meaning, where science proposes itself as an alternative to nature, where reality and fiction manage exaequo to offer proof of our ordeals and of the most dreadful fantasies.
While scientific information and images of violence multiply to the point that ethics becomes a polymorphic version of virtual behaviors, I am still Nicole Brossard, born in Montreal, with a sense of the history of Quebec and of belonging in that French part of the North American continent. I am still the writer who cannot let go of the idea that literature is subversion, transgression, and vision. I am still the feminist who thinks women have been and are still marginalized by the patriarchal system. I am still the lesbian who enjoys the way desire shapes itself among women of paroles.
The radical feminist does not wish to repeat questions and answers she has given in her previous texts. I can only rewrite my obsession for language and for the enigma of creative writing. I also know that desire is definitely a key word for any kind of creative process and that collective dreaming is at the core of any political involvement. I also have in mind that keeping the focus on women's present and future is the most challenging feat.
Let's come back to the subject of writing. Could you talk about your thoughts on fiction, in its etymological sense, as a sort of ruse or lie that transforms reality?
Yes, I have often said "in reality there is no fiction." The dictionary associates fiction with faking, dissimulation, and lying. Fiction has always been opposed to reality, as being the fruit of our imagination, as if our imagination came out of the blue. We do not construct fiction differently from the way we construct our relation to reality. In other words, we behave (in terms of patterns) in fiction the way we do in reality. Fiction is not only about story-telling, it is also about the logic of the stories each person initiates in language. By logic I mean the coherence of a universe we construct with such materials as sensations, emotions, memory, knowledge, and beliefs which are at work subterraneously within our usual practice of language which is speech. Part of that logic comes along with the literary tradition we belong to, as well as from the language we use. Part of it is idiosyncratic. It is by becoming a feminist that I was forced to question the words fiction and reality. For it seemed to me that what women were experiencing was discarded into "you are making things up," fictions or lies. One can only think about the rejection into fiction of revelations about incest, rape, and so on. Sexual practice other than plain heterosexual penetration was also seen as fictive, "unbelievable." On the other hand, men's fictions about women always came out as being "true." I think that for a long time the word fiction was an underground territory for what society did not want to admit as being part of the real. Fiction is the hidden face of the unavowable as well as of the unexplainable. I think that by telling their reality, by bearing witness to their experiences, women have narrowed the territory of fiction, of lies about them. It seems now that reality, science, and fiction have proved equal in representing the unbelievable. What is fiction now that "reality shows"—those dramatizations of real stories about serial killers—provide all the details we wanted to know about sex, violence, and injustice? What is fiction when, through technology, a grandmother can bear and give birth to her daughter's child? Nevertheless, I see fiction as an open space for desire to figure out the narrative of all those permutations we are capable of in order to give meaning to our lives.
In discussing theory and fiction in Aerial Letter, you say: "It is precisely where there is a referential illusion that theoretically women traverse the opaque reality of language and le sujet fabuleux we contain becomes operative." What is the relationship between fiction and this "fabular subject"?
Le sujet fabuleux is constructed in fiction because it can only be developed in the unpredictable part of the narrative; where words and thoughts derive, blossoming with unexpected ramifications, and henceforth initiating threads of meaning that help us to protect the positive image each woman intuits of herself. This image is the fabular subject, but in a patriarchal society the image is seen subliminally. Writing and the referential illusion that it creates allow time to retrace and to focus on the positive image. It is through Man's fiction that we have become fiction; let us exit fiction via fiction. When you pass through written language there is more of an opportunity to deal with the symbolic or to make the symbolic act for you. to be able to question or to skirt around the given course of what seems to be the universal patriarchal symbolic order. Even by using the word "fabular," something already shapes itself into a proposition. Things (meaning, images, a sense of truth) happen in writing that would never happen otherwise. I will probably write all my life because the act of writing allows for an encounter with unusual images, unexpected thoughts; a new world is opened each time.
Can you talk about the image of the hologram that is so important to your work?
I have always been interested in everything that has to do with the eye and the gaze. When I first saw a hologram, in New York in 1979, I was absolutely fascinated by it. I started to read about holograph) and was totally taken by some of the vocabulary relating to it: real image, virtual image, reflection, wave length, holographic brain. Also by the fact that all the information about the image is contained in every fragment of the holographic plate. I related that information to the fact that sentences might also contain the whole of what is at stake in a novel. For me, the hologram became the perfect metaphor to project the intuitive synthesis that I had in mind of a woman who could be real, virtual, and symbolic. By symbolic I mean she who, by being other than the mother symbol, could alter the course of meaning, values, and patterns of relationship. The hologram is tied to the idea that somehow we women have to invent our own idea of woman in order to enjoy being a woman and to proceed as a creative subject in language. I often say that if each woman could project the best that she senses in herself onto other women, we would already have accomplished a lot. I, for example, have a tendency to project onto other women the image that they are writers, straightforward speakers, and so forth. With the metaphor of the hologram I was able to integrate reality (women characters living in Montreal, New York), fiction (construction of a space for them to exist beyond their status as characters), and utopia (projection of the desire for the female symbolic). There is utopia, celebration, and projection of a positive image of women in my books. I know that in the United States there is a debate about essentialism. I think feminists should be grateful to those feminist and lesbian writers who are criticized for being essentialist. Thanks to them, the feminist movement has developed beyond the issues of equality and equity into an important cultural and social movement. Fiction, particularly innovative fiction by lesbian writers and philosophers, was the site of an overflow that allowed energy to circulate among women, and that also permitted feminist discourse to open up questions beyond the ones raised in the nineteenth century. Without celebration, desire, radical statements, and lesbian desire, feminism could have been left in the hands of liberal lawyers, lobbyists, or civil servants.
So you're suggesting that essentialism is a necessary risk.
Absolutely. Somehow, I think there is a great deal of confusion between an essentialism that would refer to biological determinism and essentialism as the projection of a mythic space freed of inferiorizing patriarchal images. Usually the accusers associate mythic essentialism, which in fact is an ontological creation, with the biological one. This confusion is not only misleading but dull.
Perhaps we can come back to what you were saying about projection—this new intervention of woman—and, in particular, a woman's gaze. In Aerial Letter you say that you write "with a woman's gaze upon you," and you continue: "A woman's gaze means: who knows how to read."
Man's gaze—the father's gaze—certainly legitimates a woman writer; it might even inspire her to excellence, as long as the writing stays within the boundaries of patriarchal meaning. It can even allow her to challenge literary tradition, or to write pornographic texts; she can try, if she so choose, to compete with Henry Miller or the Marquis de Sade. But in regard to disobedience to phallocentrism, Man's gaze has proven to censure and silence women. It promises to retaliate.
I believe that a woman's gaze is the only one that can legitimate and challenge a woman writer to go beyond the description of her social experience. The gaze of the other woman is vital because it induces recognition, complicity, and possibly desire. The gaze between women breaks the line, the fluidity of a system where men and women are trained to direct their eyes on the capital M of man because we are thought to believe that M is humanity.
In "The Textured Angle of Desire," I remark on just how difficult it is to keep focusing on women, and that lesbian love is one of the elements that allows us to maintain this focus. It is difficult to keep the focus on women as a subject of interest, recognition, and desire because of our marginalization. She who chooses to live on the margins (by identifying herself as a feminist or a lesbian), but this time in full control of her choice, gives herself a chance to keep the focus.
For me, the loss of the gaze of the other woman is also related to the difficulty feminists have in reproducing themselves from one generation to another. In other words, losing the gaze and the focus, we always skip a generation of feminists.
I find the idea of a woman's gaze very difficult to conceptualize, to the extent that the gaze itself is part of the constitution of masculine knowledge and desire. There is a philosophical relationship between the gaze and comprehension, between the gaze and amorous desire. All of this is based on the eye.
It is true that the gaze itself is part of the constitution of masculine knowledge and desire. If you are not a voyeur, the gaze means that you are introducing yourself in another space which is not your own, but which can eventually become part of your world or yourself.
The woman's gaze is meaningful because it works at filling the gap between women. What women see between them is as important as what they see of each other and in one another. The back and forth of the gaze between women (writer and reader) textures the space between them and to me that creates a social semantico-imaginative environment where meaning can be debated. I am amazed how difficult it seems for women playwrights to create dialogue between women outside of the mother-daughter relationship. Most of the time, female characters will interact through monologues. Is it because of a feminist ethic that won't allow for power relations or hierarchical roles among women? The woman's gaze acknowledges the reality of the other woman. It makes her visible, present. I believe that it actualizes she who has more than a story to tell. By that I mean she who can play with me as well as with words.
In concluding, I would like us to go back to an idea we started with: the importance of the place from where one writes. In Aerial Letter you talk about urbanity, and, more precisely, of "urban radicals," urban women who write and publish. Do you feel that there is still a Québecois specificity to this radical urbanity?
It is strange, but I have always felt that speaking and writing about Montreal is making a statement about being a North American of French descent. It is also a way of valuing our own literature. For a long time in our literature, the city was associated with sin, depravation, a place where you lose your soul. So for someone of my generation, I guess it is easy to associate radicalism with the city. Somehow the city seems to organize a metaphoric network that integrates delinquency, belonging, movement, excitement, and excess. In a recent text, I was saying that I am an urban woman on the graffiti side of the wall, on the sleepless side of night, on the free side of speech, on the side of writing where the skin is a fervent collector of dawns. I am from the city; I've always lived there; and I love the city and the freedom it allows even if it is dangerous for women. So I'm an urban radical. It's also a metaphor for me to say: I am a girl in combat in the city of men.
The fabular subject again?
I guess so. Certainly one aspect of the fabular subject. Urbaine radicale, sujet fabuleux, ma continent are probably noticeable as expressions not only for the meaning they suggest but also for their linguistic fabric, a semantic mix which creates its own aura of resonance. But to come back to la fille en combat dans la cité, I guess she is the product of a choice that I make which is to stay in the polis in order to confront patriarchal meaning instead of retiring to the mythic island of the Amazons, whose subtext to me is peace and harmony, while the subject for la cité is the law (not harmony), the written word (not the song), and constant change. The mythic island is in me, in books, and in the women with whom I surround myself.
I am a woman of the here and now, fascinated with the virtual that exists in the human species. But have we women been damaged by men's way of ordering the world and proving their "humanity"? Because I want all the energy and creativity that women are capable of, I will stay in the city so the law can be changed. Of course, there is that possibility that the law will be changed into something else only when we are done with the written word, which is definitely a partner to patriarchy and history—history being the trajecstory of desire. I guess it is difficult for me to stay on the island because I am a woman of the written word, nonetheless aware of the metaphoric network that comes along with it: individualism, and an endless process of desire and hope that often comes out as an excess or a quest for the absolute. For me, staying in the city means to be alert, vigilant, in order to discriminate between propositions for a future and procedures that would lead to catastrophe.
I think we now understand how the double constraint, the double-bind that women experience in a sexist, misogynist, and phallocentric society works. We now know that this double-bind immobilizes, demobilizes women.
What you're saying reminds me of Monique Wittig's Le Corps lesbien [The Lesbian Body] where she also talks about this island separated from the continent, the "dark continent" of the patriarchal order. But it is not about finding the island and remaining there calmly and peacefully. What really remains is the tension between the island and the continent.
The tension which is desire is creative, the tension of debate is also creative. I want women's creativity to sparkle throughout the city, in the university, on the radio, in books, in films.
I now feel that besides the creative tension of being une fille en combat dans la cité, there is also another tension which is the one I referred to in the beginning of this interview: a double-time where the sensation of the slowness of the act of writing and the sensation of speeding among images (virtual, fractal, or numeric) mix in such a way that the writer wonders with a sudden disquietude to what world she belongs; if she is drifting away from the shore or heading back toward the idea of a future, another shore.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5617
SOURCE: "Producing Visibility for Lesbians: Nicole Brossard's Quantum Poetics," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 21, No. 2, June, 1995, pp. 125-37.
[In the following essay, Godard discusses Brossard's use of quantum theory in her discussion of visualization and lesbian politics in Picture Theory.]
Vision, passion, reading, a mathematics of the imaginary—these key terms from the opening stanzas of "The Vision" section in Nicole Brossard's long poem Lovhers interweave the formal and thematic concerns more fully developed in her 1982 fiction, Picture Theory. The epigraph to the hologram version of the text, written in the future anterior of 2002 and presented as the final section of Picture Theory, includes in the list of titles produced by the same author "Faire exister ce qui existe, essai, Éditions de l'Hexagone 1992." This frames Brossard's concern with the affective as well as the cognitive and sensory networks of meaning production as a question of making visible, producing visibility, or outing. I use the term "outing" deliberately here to underline the fact that Brossard's concern with visualization in reading is connected to a lesbian politics. The poetics developed in Picture Theory is explicitly a theory of reading as research and aims to effect (and theorize—which literally means to be-hold or visualize—) a shift in perspective or parallax, a reframing, that would put in what is usually left out and expose out as the very heart of within—lesbians as desiring subjects. This project is advanced also by shifting the boundaries in reading to make the reader aware of manipulating a concrete textual object, not effacing it in the quest for meaning. In this, the text expands on what is always already (t)here, though visible only to some. To this end, Picture Theory deploys a number of different strategies of ostension, some verbal, some visual.
The critical gesture that initiates the parallax—a quantum leap—is a woman desiring to read another woman's book, a narrative thread that turns on the polysemy of the French term "delire," which means contradictorily both "delirious" and "about reading" or "to unread." This production of meaning is figured in Picture Theory as the "white scene" of May 16 between the narrator and Claire Dérive (light adrift derivative),the "love scene" that works its way through the section "The Perspective" and is distinguished by its unspeakability, as silence, whiteness, and transparency. The visuality of this drift of pure light is subsequently materialized as the "white page" in the section "Skin Screen" where Michelle Vallée, the character of the fiction within the fiction, is the focalizer for a meditation on the "screen of selection" through which language and a rhythm are instantiated to produce a simulation of sensation (pain) and, subsequently, of emotion. These are concretized as the white page on which the reader projects images to make sense:
C'était donc cela qu'elle cherchait au coeur de la lettre aerienne, cela cette phosphorescence dans la nuit comme une permanence féminine prenant relief dans la pierre. L'image est floue. Les mots lapidaires. Le sense trouble. Toute la réalité se condense en abstraction. Se dédouble, floue encore, une succession d'images visiblement de femmes (sans ordre chronologique) tridimensionnelle, font une proposition+ SCREAM-SKIN-SCREEN … SKIMMING THROUGH A NOVEL, me promener fievreusement dans les rues de Montréal.
So that's what she was seeking in the heart of the aerial letter, that phosphorescence in the night like a permanent feminine presence taking on relief in stone. The image is fluid. Words lapidary. Sense troubled. All reality is condensed in abstraction. Doubled fluid still, a succession of images visibly of women (without chronological order) three-dimensional, make a proposition+ SCREAM-SKIN-SCREEN … SKIMMING THROUGH A NOVEL, me promener fièvreusement dans les rues de Montréal.
A footnote at the bottom of the page informs the reader that, according to Wittgenstein, "A Proposition is a Picture of Reality." Wittgenstein continues, pointing out the difference between a predicative logic that names, defines, ontologically, and a propositional logic that shows forth from a particular combination of elements or scale of relations: "The proposition is a model of the reality as we think it is." "The proposition can only say how a thing is not what it is" and it does this by "show[ing] its sense." The critical question is what something does, not what it is, what relations or effects are set in play. Ontologizing truth claims are not framed in a prepositional logic. Brossard quotes Wittgenstein in an epigraph to Picture Theory: "What can be said can only be said by means of a sentence, and so nothing that is necessary for the understanding of all sentences can be said." Translated into linguistic terms, this logic asserts a demonstrative or performative rather than nominal function. Shifts between French and English in this section demonstrate the ways in which meaning depends, as Wittgenstein puts it, on which language game one is in. Framing, perspective is the significant element. For language(s) is a filter that allows some things but not "everything" to be articulated. Bodily sensations—pain, pleasure—are some of the things filtered out of ordinary language. These are what Brossard seeks to im/press on language, especially the bundle of sensory signifiers activated in lesbian love. Her concern is with bodies and attachments, affective and effective in relation to images, with the desiring production of mental images.
The text plays with the white scene foregrounding it as the scene of reading as well as the scene of lesbian love. All reading by implication entails an investment (cathexis or transference?). Meanings are hence partial in both senses of the term. As the white page, the scene signifies the materiality of reading where the reader manipulates black marks on a white page. It continues Brossard's earlier textual practice of playing with typefaces and framing devices that simultaneously function as, and metacritically comment on, the use of typography to produce boundaries delimiting inside/outside in order to focus the reader's attention on different parts of a text with varying intensities. As blank space, the white scene also offers itself as virtually, screen of potentiality for projection where the reader can make what she will of the text. Her co-creative powers working to produce textual drift are thus inscribed at the very centre of the text, making and unmaking meaning at the same time.
In this figure of the white scene that is simultaneously material and abstract, pure light and the ineffable, Brossard takes on the history of the figuration of the feminine as vanishing point in western philosophical discourse to refigure this absence as a question of perspective, an angle of vision. As she writes: "Writing is making oneself visible. To show all sorts of forms and experiences. To impose upon the gaze of the other before he gets a chance to." While the patriarchal tradition of the west has focused on death and the feminine as the unspeakable horror, as site of both absence and transcendence, the gap across which meaning is made as theological moment of closure or matricide, Brossard, in company with other feminist theorists such as Cixous and Irigaray, reads this hollow through a different frame of desire as a space of potentiality, of virtuality, as a space of becomings. This is writing/reading as research, as Brossard has termed it in "E muet mutant" (silent "e" changing), a mutation brought about by a change in intellectual paradigms from biology to cybernetics, a movement from red to white, from the blood and body to the synapses and neo-cortex (corps-texte, the body as text or sign system). "Our keys of information and practice no longer open the same desires and anticipations." This movement involves an encounter with the radically other, an outpouring that is a reversible movement in recognition of the other that I might be in another language (game): "Être traduite, c'est être enquêtée … dans sa façon même de penser dans une langue, de même que dans la façon dont nous sommes pensées par une langue. C'est avoir à s'interroger sur cette autre que je pourrais être si je pensais en anglais, en italien, ou en toute autre langue."
Like Cixous, Brossard could claim to be writing "from," writing from something given by the other, from the body, writing "away from … death our double mother." This is an attempt to go beyond the law of the Father, the sacrificial social contract into which women are bound in western society predicated on elimination of her (perceived) threat to the authority of the gaze, the sight and death of a woman (Orphic version), or loss of sight and death caused by a woman (Oedipal version). In both mythemes, the connection of Woman to vision and her requisite erasure en route to truth and subjectivity, produces for women the tragedy of exclusion, of being heterogeneous or excess to society. Invisibility is a problem especially for the lesbian who is also collapsed into homosociality. For this is the maternal space, territory of the "imaginary mother" described by Kristeva, only symbolic space accorded Woman in philosophic and psychoanalytic discourse, one of "christic sublimination" in which the feminine is completely absorbed in the maternal function and becomes an abstraction, leaving the body for the soul and fusion with the Ideal. The mother is "the absolute because primeval seat of the impossible—of the excluded, the outside-of-meaning, the abject," as Kristeva summarizes the negative sublime.
This exclusion is the legacy of the Hegelian and idealist dialectic in which a sensory signifier is sublated in an ideal signified and meaning is produced through a synthesis that effects a substitution based on the privileging of presence. Even the Lacanian reversal of this move to make castration a contract of truth by focusing on endless substitution of affects, substitution in which the subject and object are both present and absent, persists in mapping the phallus as indivisible and hence perpetuates its identity function over a gendered opposition of masculine/present, feminine/absent. Metaphor is the figure that best performs this kind of substitution that is grounded in a binary logic of either/or, present/absent. It performs on the level of the signifier the work of appropriation and specularization effected by the Aufhebung in the order of subjectivity, desire, knowledge. Such a hermeneutics of aletheia advances a singular truth by forecluding difference(s). The narrative contract of subject-desires-object epitomized in the romance model, participates in this same economy of mastery wherein the subject (masculine) pursues and overcomes the object (feminine) in a closure as effacement. Even psychoanalytic anamnesis, concerned with fixing the affective element of substitution, works through screen memories to disengage an absent bundle of affects or signifiers from the first relations with the maternal in order to acknowledge loss and castration and to separate from her body into language and representation. Here the feminine is eclipsed along with the erasure of materiality in an instance of re-covery by synthesis that is simultaneously a covering-up or rendering invisible in what is an "interiorizing idealization."
Brossard does not explicitly challenge this philosophic legacy in elaborating her hermeneutics of making visible or recombination that offers different versions of truth. Rather she cites the legacy and reworks it, hollowing it out to transform a culture of death into one of life. By focusing on processes, not entities, Brossard avoids a new ontology and changes the models of knowing and identity. Instead of separation of mind and body in internalization that institutes the separation of knowing subject from object of knowledge, she works for greater expansion by showing the attachment of mind to body. In what she calls the "fervent relay," they are contingently related through the image that sets up lines of desire, engendering relations of effective and affective movement. Most explicitly she cites the western tradition as she rewrites the great modernist books of the night, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, to transform them into pure light. "Patriarchal machine for making the blues," she calls them. She does this by working from death, working from quotations and fragments of these texts of death, which she rewrites in a new context—displacement through repetition—as a strategy of modulation, working upon the signifier to make it vibrate and resonate in a different web or network of signification with a different intensity, with a different energy. Joyce's Bloomsday is enlightened in the amorous white scene of May 16th: indeed, his Dublin is invoked as the site of a "mutilated voice" just before the scene. As a golden helmeted woman, Claire Dérive traverses Barnes's nightworld of crossed lovers into the pages of a poetry sequence where the virtual subject and object (two women) embrace:
i uttered some words whose invisibility
on the skin of cheeks i signed
a time of Utopian arrest. i had
against my body abstract the sensation of the body
of Claire Dérive and i declared my feelings.
I was energy without end, the sensation of the idea, i
was a woman touched by the appearance of a rose in
Utopia's expression, i was this morning of May 16th,
with Claire Dérive, exposed to vital abstraction.
Claire, as clarity and transparency, "the wave … the space the memory," is pure energy changing the angle of vision. As image, she sets bodies in movement, slipping endlessly through meanings, allowing us to see what the system cannot bring us to say. "Encircling the intention for the brilliant burst of things and feeling…. I am moving forward, she said to herself…. Using language and the dictionary to go beyond…." The fictive writer does this by working through potentialities, superimposing rather than excluding. She shows forth, she brings to the surface of the skin and the screen of culture what its ordinary perception and language have not been able to see or display. The white scene of absence is also the skin/screen of textual surface, the medium of inscription for the production of a palimpsest. Surface effects. Embodied effects. For Brossard's work is regulated not by an oppositional logic, but by a quantum logic in which contradictions coexist as virtualities. Consequently, the scenes of reading in Picture Theory involve both the book as virtual object and the material object, a "fold of continuous paper" where may be found the trace of the city that brings e-motion.
The operative term in this multiplying of screens is "with": Picture Theory is a musing with/against Joyce, Barnes, Stein, Wittgenstein, and others to display/displace them in a practice of the fragment and of repetition. The "narrative" of Picture Theory is no quest for an absent woman, but a conjuring with the traces of women in other narratives inserted into Picture Theory as quotation and topoi to make it a story of reading and writing, of selection and reworking, where fragments are repeated in a series of different "takes" through a different filter. Emotion and politics both tint the lenses. Brossard frames this through the fictive writer M. V.:
Sometimes, emotion was in this body which has a predilection for and cultivates sensations a sort of spatial equation that excites M. V. to the pitch. Seen from this angle, the screen was becoming a lithophany of changing appearance and M. V. had to begin breathing again to describe the impression she was feeling when the word emotion was written mechanically to follow through on the idea, sort of prerequisite, the idea in order to remember there exist dissimulated networks.
The selection of one's subject of reading turns one into an author of the reading. Yet one is reciprocally read by the text in a dynamic interaction. Following the "white scene," this process of self-portraiture is described as "kaleidoscopic": "'senseless' work on the sense of meaning to the point of exhaustion or, until a breach of law is committed." The breach is Brossard's focus: she follows a trace until an opening is made which shifts the frames and undoes the boundaries or limits to produce something different. This work of repetition, of building up a fiction through different takes or perspectives, is Brossard's method of interrupting the figurations of the feminine as spectral woman. The effect of repetition, which is a reading or an interpretation of an Other woman, is to force attention to the textuality of linking, of doubling, as an action or performance in language and to open up other possibilities in the venerable story of "Love [as] homesickness." Brossard writes of this as the "serial circulation of spatial gestures." Relational points of desire and becoming, images work as movement. Images are a way of thinking a trajectory from body to body. The image is, in Brossard's words, "une ressource vitale qui forme des propositions complexes à partir d'éléments simples et isolés. Chaque fois qu'une image relaie le désir, cette image pense avec une vigueur insoupçonnée la dérive du sens. C'est ainsi que les images pénètrent à notre insu la matière solide de nos idées." Narrative, a system for ordering relations, becomes a modality/model for repetition or change over/as time. The logical conjunctions operative in a temporal image are subordinate to a movement image that represents time indirectly as a succession of frames or takes, a virtual becoming, not a simultaneity, a potentiality that calls into question the notion of "truth" because of its ability to break through boundaries and effect metamorphoses.
Though the superposition of divergent sign systems in the palimpsest, codes are set aslant one another in what functions as an "intensive system," telescoping signifiers, multiplying or ramifying their resonance to infinity, proliferating new ambiguities and branching out in many "heterogeneous series." The discontinuity and diagonal encounter of these complex sign systems produce displacement at the heart of "reading" a text that sets up surface events, lines of flight. Such "sorties" draw attention to the work of mediating images, of apprehending "reality," foreground the way in which a shift in the angle of viewing produces a different "take" on "reality." Such work of repetition and intensification sets up a disequilibrium that functions as an active force of deformation and recombination within social protocols of representation, reorganizing within a regime of signs the networks of signifiers and so instituting transformations of the language acts that allocate subjects and signs their positions in an order of social obligations within specific relations of law and desire. In this way are introduced lines of variation, of potential metamorphoses, a dispersion of points of "subjective" observation throughout images of movement. "L'image glisse etonnante re/source qui n'en finit plus de glisser entre les sens cherchant l'angle des pensées." Through such lines of escape may be ordered a virtual woman.
On the "skin/screen" in successive sections ("Skin Screen," "Skin Screen Two," "Skin Screen Utopia") are displayed the sensations, the emotions, and the ideas of M. V. Through this overlapping Brossard points to the inseparability of sensations and ideas. New sensations or sights, new "visions," arise "after the text." In the third of these sections, focusing on possible world or Utopian theory, the mimetic contract grounded in substitution is supplemented by the concept of a virtual woman born in the letter who will carry the fiction forward, "push[ing] death away." This is the vital "thinking woman" who, with her idea of making another woman through whom everything might happen, "imagine[s] an abstract woman who would slip into my text." She would not be invented in fiction but fiction would be the "precise term," the modality in which she would "loom into view." "[T]his woman participant in words, must be seen coming, virtual to infinity, form-elle in every dimension of understanding, method and memory." "Writing is always virtual," she underlines, but it has effects, bodily and political, actualized through reading: "artifice of fiction on the shelves of a suburban municipal library. It was book after book of sentiment stuck to the tongue (the body follows when in winter the curious tongue adventures onto metal." "All reality condenses into abstraction. Doubles, splits, swindles, difficult reference." The difficulties of reference and mimesis are those that have been produced by the "haunting memory of Man" through the "semantic line" and the net of "patriarchal subjectivity." To intercept these "effects of the real" that are taken for reality, to shift signifying systems, to organize them around another network contiguous with the female body, requires work on the virtual, in/as fiction to produce different figurations that will transform the real. This is the task of reading as unreading as the five women on the island demonstrate:
All night long exploring in broad daylight the dictionary, the context in which ideas were formed then renewed, identical and machine gun for repetition in our mouths beginning with the worst, a of deprivation. Studious girls, we will divert the course of fiction, dragging with us words turn and turn about, igneous spiral, picture theory.
This may also be considered, in Brossard's phrase, the work of a mathematics of the imaginary, to develop different models and modalities, pictures of different scales of relations among elements, that will permit the actualization of this virtual woman in a process of reading. Reality will be figured (thought/lived) in another way.
Brossard's main trope for virtual reality is the hologram, the title she gives to the final section of Picture Theory, a repetition and reworking of all the other sections, one, moreover, that through its explicit quotation of earlier sections of the text, of groups of phonemes repeated in many variations throughout, draws attention to the text's organization as a combinatory. It is through the concept of the hologram as combinatory, both in its ability to produce a three-dimensional simulation of an image, consisting of many fragments, each holding the entire image, in its mathematical formulation, and as light, most specifically the laser beam, that Brossard introduces theoretical models from contemporary physics to conceptualize accounts of (re)combination and transformation. In this, she demonstrates Wittgenstein's theory of picture reality. The "picture is a model of reality" in that it is a "scale" applied to reality whose specific combination of elements or "form of representation" can only be shown forth not represented. "The picture consists in the fact that its elements are combined with one another in a definite way." "The proposition shows its sense. The proposition shows how things stand if it is true." The particular "scale" or relation of elements Brossard shows forth in the hologram is the Uncertainly principle of Quantum theory, that is the wave/particle theory of light.
Quantum physics changes our understanding of relationships. Movement is no longer the mechanical, sequential and return patterns ruled by cause and effect of classical physics but, at the level of sub-atomic particles, is random, spontaneous, discontinuous movement, reversible and synchronous across time. If Newton asked how can anything ever happen, quantum theorists ask how can anything ever be. Reality is not fixed actualities that can be known but rather the probabilities of all the various actualities that might be known. Quantum moves are made through probability waves that are temporary feelers put out toward stability, a trying out all possible new positions as if throwing out imaginary scenarios. These are "virtual transitions" that become real transitions under specific conditions. Among the many possible mutations only one gets actualized in a particular instance of interference. None of the potentials is lost, however. Intervention is crucial here. For the particular way we observe quantum reality partly determines what we see. The quantum universe is a participatory one in which whatever we call reality is revealed to us only through an active construction in which we participate. That is not to say that we create reality, rather we evoke and give concrete form to one of many possibilities to produce truth within a situation.
This is demonstrable for what we know as light, which quantum physics has shown to exist indeterminately in two contradictory modes as wave motions on a surface and as disturbed particles in a high energy field of dynamic flux. Both are necessary, in that each supplies a kind of information the other lacks, but only one mode is available at a given time, according to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Which one depends on the kind of filter or measuring system set in place as Schrödinger demonstrated. The cat to be observed exists in a superimposed state of total potentialities, both alive and dead simultaneously. In the moment in which a researcher observes the cat, however, only one of those potentialities is actualized. What this experiment demonstrates is the role of observation or intervention in moulding "reality." Observed systems have an associated wave function that is the coherent superposition of all the possible results of an interaction between the observed system and a measuring system. The development in time of this coherent superposition of possibilities is expressed in Schrödinger's wave equation, which is used to calculate the form of this coherent superposition of possibilities called a wave function at this particular time. This gives a probability function different from, though calculated from, a wave function. Quantum theory cannot predict events, only probabilities. In this, quantum theory is based on a non-Aristotelian logic in which a statement can be either true or false or merely possible. In such a logic, the fixed point of vision and perspective taken up outside the space observed of Euclidean geometry would be replaced by a topological geometry of the Mobius strip in which apparently opposing sides are formed from a single, continuous surface.
Such models of interactive moulding of reality through an observation/intervention from a specific point under particular conditions—here those of a woman reading another woman's book—are introduced metonymically in Picture Theory through the hologram. In the hologram, a three-dimensional optical illusion produced by a parallax or leap between potentialities effected by a laser beam of light, is active as a superposition of wave functions such as described in Schrödinger's equation. Holography or writing is transformed in the whiteout of the scene of production/seduction where desire, time, memory "flow as information in optical fibre" into the "Hologram," a combinatory through which a potential woman is modelled: "At the ultimate equation I would loom into view." "[S]he had come to the point in full fiction abundant(ly) to re/cite herself perfectly readable." "Today a white light made them real." The hologram is like the Wittgenstein "picture" a "model of reality," not a record of the object but a light wave or event.
For Brossard, the hologram is the "superposition" of multiple images from successive exposures, an overlapping, a trope of intertextuality, of the interaction of discourses, of the intermingling of bodies. The hologram is metonymic in that each part can produce the entire image. This reconstitution results in a "virtual" image, the record of the process of illumination by the laser beam. The hologram displays its transformation of (f)act: a woman's voice pierces the screen of skin and like the laser beam piercing the optical encoding, reconstructs or actualizes a "virtual" image. The illusion of the hologram functions like Wittgenstein's understanding of picture as fact in displaying the logic of relations, but does so not iconically but by performing it. The hologram is a model of text as event, mapping specific relations of energy. The particular relations are those of combinations or "junctional structures" working in intertextual networks through protocols of self-referral and rehearsal in sets of recursive functions. In the splitting of the laser beam are "interference patterns," especially "neighbourhood interactions" or "superpositions," activated in a process of repetition and produced through a set of filters or screens as waves of light.
Textual function, like brain function, takes the form of "superposition." The excitation of a single optic nerve—of a single verbal fragment—affects the discharge rate of neighbouring units and creates interferences. The neighbourhood interaction of waves is described as the convolution of one wave with another and accounted for by equations called "convolutional integrals." The interaction of many convolutional integrals, when configurations of excitation converge from several sources, produces interference patterns. Such interference effects may also be described by equations based on Fourier transformations. This transformation is a parallax or sudden shift in perspective to explain something from another point of view. The transformation produced in this case is a shift in space/time where the time of a signal is transformed into the space of a signal. The transformation is produced by means of an integral, or the sum of a function—that is, of a transformation to be made, of a potential transformation. Fourier's transformational function is a function in the sense of the differential equation in calculus. A mathematical curve joins an infinity of discrete points in a passage toward a limit it never reaches. This is the operation of folding or "le pli," an unfolding to infinity. It is also an infolding of infinity: each segment of the curve contains, in potentiality, an infinite number of other functions and each point on the curve is divisible into an infinity of other points—each of which in turn belongs to yet another infinite set of potential functions. Folding is a serial process linking an infinity of discrete elements into an endless curve.
The curve and the fold, two terms repeated in the combinatory that is Picture Theory. Brossard is interested in this fiction as mathematics of the imaginary not only in mapping all the curve potentials for systems, but also in mapping changing local minima, that is, locating points where jumps are made across unstable pathways between one unstable state and another. For jumps are the moments when rapid or revolutionary change may take place. In Picture Theory, this point of inflection producing disequilibrium and a movement to a new state is the work of memory stimulated by a woman's desire to read another woman's book, memory engaged in the repetition and recontextualization of signs in the performance of reading, such repetition related to potentia, to energy. The leap in mental process is doubled by a shift in affective relations between women to effect a transformation in the gendered ordering of social and discursive formations, a revolutionary potential figured by a discontinuous curve. The potential for different organization of relations is figured in Picture Theory. This awaits the intervention of a reader to actualize them under specific constraints.
In that it establishes an unfinalizable system, Picture Theory frames its truth claims in a general performative theory of discourse where what is at stake in an utterance is not an opposition between truth and falsehood but varying degrees of felicity in performance, the degree to which they carry out what they promise, the richness of that promise. What the performative stages is the risk of loss, the gap between potential and act. This figure of incompletion sets in play the condition generating the principle of repetition, the condition of beginning again and again, the necessity of going beyond loss. The utterance functions not as a fulfillment of an absence but as a process, an event, in an enunciating instance that exposes the place and energy of the subject. Language is a complex network of turns and counterturns setting in play a reign of effects and affects. In this regime of meaning production, reading is posited in the subjunctive as a potential intervention in some unfinalizable time. Reading here is a performance, a beginning again and again—anaphora, not metaphor. There is no carrying across into meaning, but becomings ever overcoming the inevitable failure of such closure in the heart of a promise.
Brossard moves the figuration of the feminine from excess read out to excess reading in. The woman reader is chance intervention that destabilizes the equilibrium of first and second, subject and object, present and absent, and so calls into the question the logic of either/or, displacing it with the logic of the combinatory, of the series, given over to expansion, to proliferation, to potentiality. Although there is a possibility for setting the system careening wildly in all directions, at any one point in the relay only one possibility will be actualized at a time. It matters that it is a woman reading Picture Theory, more specifically that it is a lesbian reading, because the network of relations between body, signs, images produced in the work of reading will be inflected by her singular desire and energy. For, as Brossard has shown, what we do is inflected by who we are. The kind of image produced on the screen on which the beam of light or meaning is captured will differ depending on the energy of the receiving body. Ignitability, fluidity, provisionality, are all open to the play of chance. In the realm of quantum forces, energy is measured not in terms of depth and intention, but by degrees of pleasure/satisfaction to corporealized effects and affects. This work of relating the vibrations of the uncertain with the certain body is a "fabulous mathematics," matter for writing like "the entire surface of my skin." "Surfaces of reading," Brossard terms this concern with literature as action or event, distinguished from representation where the "economy of the mirror" circulates. Writing on that surface in "d'une surface," she summarizes: "Les mots etaient en action … le texte attira mon attention." Reading words for surface effects is to intervene with all one's affects in a relay of images, to inflect them in a particular order of relations that opens up certain possibilities to be actualized in some future reading. No longer condemned to exile, the reading woman will make herself visible through her "creative wandering" from image to image, actualizing lesbian desire.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6337
SOURCE: "From Lesbos to Montreal: Nicole Brossard's Urban Fictions," in Yale French Studies, No. 90, 1996, pp. 95-114.
[In the following essay, Huffer asserts that "Brossard's oeuvre distinguishes itself from an entire Sapphic tradition of lesbian writing by demystifying nostalgia rather than celebrating it."]
Helen, my grandmother, is one hundred-and-one years old. Having never remarried since her husband died over thirty-five years ago, she dines and plays bridge with the other elderly residents of the group facility where she lives in Toledo, Ohio. It's funny how women endure. Like a lesbian enclave, the place is virtually without men. I think of this as some strange connection between us, a certain similarity between her home and mine, but one that will never be spoken. My grandmother will never know about me, unless, perhaps, she reads these lines. She will never know about the woman, my mother, who married her son, and who later came out as a lesbian, long before I did, when the going was rough and the stakes were high. Now, among the aunts and uncles and distant cousins, some know about us and whisper discreetly. Others, to be fair, are sympathetic. A few embrace us. But when you become a lesbian, you automatically get written out of someone's history. There is no branch there, for mother and daughter and the women we love, on the precious family tree.
Sometimes details, like trees and cousins, can bring you through detours to the heart of a matter. In one branch of the family we recently discovered the captain of a ship: a distant cousin, I believe. Not long ago my uncle found this cousin's log-book in my grandmother's safe. The travel log, dated 1811, recorded his movements, his thoughts, the food he ate, the weather he encountered, as he crossed the Atlantic. When my uncle sat down and plotted out the ship's course from Dublin to New York he found, not surprisingly, that sailing ships never travel in straight lines. Although journeying from east to west, most days the boat traveled northeast to southwest or southeast to northwest. Some days it sailed backwards or scarcely changed its position at all. It moved erratically, like the lightning flare of a heart, pumping, flashing across an EKG monitor.
After more than a century of life, my grandmother's heart is still beating. I would like her rhythm to be recorded, just as the zigzagging motion of a ship was given pulse and flare again through my uncle's diligent tracings. But there are other journeys within those lines: the hidden lives that will not be recorded on my uncle's map or the family tree. These are the journeys I want to record.
We can conceive of a life lived, like we can a journey, as a game of connect-the-dots. Moments in experience, like points on a map, can be linked to reveal a pattern. The result is a network of beginnings, destinations, and bridges that only make sense when they are plotted against other visible cultural patterns. So, if meanings assemble like flags on a map or letters on a page, how might a cartographer of the invisible proceed? In particular, how might a cartographer of lesbian history and culture plot the unrecorded movements of lesbian lives?
Let's look again at Winterson's parable about the Greek letter. She gives us a recipe for writing and reading the hidden life: one part milk, one part coal-dust sprinkled, of course, by someone who knows what she's doing. Reading Winterson's description of the coded letter, I want the "life flaring up" to be subversive, lesbian, refusing invisibility and silence. But is it? Is lesbian writing like a secret message written in milk and made visible by those who know better? I can see it now:
Lesbian #1: Ah hah! Look what I found! An ancient letter!
Lesbian #2: Yeah, and it's sticky! I think I'll sprinkle it with coal-dust! What do you think?
Lesbian #1: Go for it, babe. I have a good feeling about this one …
Lesbian #2: Hmmm, let's see…. Yep, just as I suspected! A message from Sappho …
Lesbian #1: It takes one to know one …
Is secret communication the way of liberation? It's true that oppression forces people to be creative in finding alternative forms of expression. But, pace Cixous, I cringe at the thought of snapping a cartridge filled with milk into my fountain pen. I'd rather work at changing the conditions of our lives: we all deserve a pen, lots of paper, and a lifetime supply of ink. Besides, these days coal-dust is hard to come by.
Still, I'm attracted to cultural myths, like the Sapphic one, about hushed secrets finding voice. Some days, for example, I dream of sailing away, like a good lesbian, to Lesbos. I'd bring my mother along, and together we'd plot our course back through some other history, some other time, to an alternative family origin. Gathering like sibyls to read the crumpled leaves strewn beneath the family tree, we'd map shapes and scenes of passion from the censored thoughts and silent scribblings lying there like unmailed letters. Casting off, we'd say goodbye to patriarchy and oppression:
farewell black continent of misery and suffering farewell ancient cities we are embarking for the shining radiant isles for the green Cytheras for the dark and gilded Lesbos.
Of course, this kind of escapist vision in which I sometimes indulge is hardly new, as a whole lesbian separatist tradition can attest, to say nothing of a long line of lesbian and nonlesbian writers who celebrate some version of a Sapphic heritage. Leaving the continent for the island is a frequently plotted route for those who find in Lesbos a symbol of political and cultural origins. As Judy Grahn puts it:
Sappho wrote to us from (this) island … to those of us holding Sappho in our mind's eye as the historic example both of Lesbianism and of Lesbian poetry, everything she represents lies on an island.
If, for Grahn and others, Sappho is the historic example of lesbian life and lesbian writing, the move from the continent to the island is hardly surprising. However, isn't this pilgrimage to a Greek Island another version of the secret milk-writing described by Winterson? Isn't this just a lesbian form of nostalgia? Finding a lost island is like finding the lost lines of a letter: both function to constitute an exclusive community around the revelation of a secret. Again, we can ask this question: is this hidden, insular, coded communication the way of liberation? Do lesbians just need to get back to the island, to the source of our desire, to the milky place of our Sapphic mother?
If we answer, "no! that's not it," and "no, again, that's still not it!" the problem becomes: so now what? If we agree that "every journey conceals another journey within its lines," how do we trace that other journey without falling into the nostalgic trap of coded letters and secret islands? How do we map invisibility and silence? What is revealed, and what disappears in that mapping? The question is complex, as Adrienne Rich reminds us in her poem "Cartographies of Silence":
Silence can be a plan
the blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence
History and form go together: a game of connect-the-dots. Just as bits of family history are brought to light as a branch on a verdant tree, so too a certain version of lesbian history can assemble itself into a deceptively singular shape—a Greek letter, an island—that gives it cultural meaning. To ignore the island and the sticky letter would be to do what Rich warns us not to do: to erase the blueprint, to confuse silence with absence. But to remain stuck there isn't the answer either. Most crucially, many lesbians will never find their way with that milky map. What do Sappho, Lesbos, and Greek culture represent, for example, for a lesbian of African descent? For the native people of North America? Indeed, the plotting of that journey back to ancient Greece not only fails to acknowledge other histories and other maps, but it has effaced the paths and cultural symbols through which those stories can be traced. Liberation means more than making maps from silence and giving shape to the invisible. What flares up as a flag on the map, and what is erased by that marker?
Rich's poem suggests that lesbian writing, like silence, has a history and a form, but its shape is dynamic, multilayered, and changing. Here I'm reminded of my uncle's discovery: sailing ships never travel in straight lines. Recording "the unrecorded" can only be an erratic and complex undertaking; like history itself, lesbian lives might be seen as layers of journeys superimposed on a map thick with time. Lesbian writing cannot be a straight shot home to some Sapphic paradise: check the turn of the compass needle and watch the change of sails as the ship shifts direction to find the wind. There it is: another "path not taken," another "forgotten angle."
"Every journey conceals another journey within its lines": grandmothers hide log-books and ships and sailors; lesbian daughters hide lesbian mothers; continents hide islands; silence hides the blueprint to a life, someone writing. Like every journey, every writing conceals another writing: behind Homer lies Sappho; behind Proust lies Colette; behind France and its literary canon lie Sénégal and Senghor, Martinique and Césaire, Guadeloupe and Condé, Québec and Hébert. Conversely, writing, flaring up, can make other writings disappear, just as new cities can violently efface old ones, as the conquest of continents makes abundantly clear. The flight of sailors into the uncharted azure may be the stuff of poems as well as family lore, but those expansive journeys are hardly innocent: pouf! and there goes a city, a civilization, an island. I remember the light through the window, splashing the table, taking shape at the heart of writing…. After my conversation with Nicole Brossard, I met up with my friend Serene. We were there in Montreal and we loved the image of girls in the city with diaphanous wings and combat boots: "an urban radical," "a fairy in combat in the city of men." This translation of Brossard's metaphor was a mistake on my part, I was later to learn. She had said "fille en combat," not "fée en combat." Oh well, I thought, French is a language that is never mastered. I was embarrassed by my linguistic ineptitude; but to be honest, I was also … disappointed. I have to admit, I still want them to be fairies: urban fairies, in combat, in the city of men, "in this dark adored adorned gehenna."
So I've been looking for a place for my fairy to live, and I think I've found it, right here in the city, in the pages of Brossard's French Kiss. As in kissing, so in speaking: it's never certain where those lips and swirling tongues will take you. Her lips pronounced fille and I heard fée, a fairy in "a forest smelling pungently of brick, cool green forest painted on a wall of brick." I remember Brossard saying: "if each woman could project the best that she senses in herself onto other women, we would already have accomplished a lot." So that's how I became an urban fairy, projected by her, coming out into a forest painted cool and green. I was still myself, but I was also just a bit more than myself: braver, slightly larger, more expansive.
She was a sight to behold, this urban fairy I became, unfolding beyond the mirror Brossard was holding. She belonged to another dimension: magnified and armed to the hilt, not with milk and parchment, but with spray paint, a wand, and wings to take her spiralling up and down those walls. What a dyke! I perceived her clearly, moving "under the surface with wins-like texture to confront reality," writing her aerial letter for all to see.
Graffiti-writing fairies may seem a long way off from secret letters and sailing ships, to say nothing of my grandmother in Toledo, Ohio. I can't help but see the connections, though: family trees become urban forests, coal-sprinkled letters become graffiti-marked walls. How do we remember and record what is lost? Who is writing, and who is reading?
I'm still moving through the glass that Brossard holds before me: there, beneath the surface, where wings and wand turn to arc and spiral, people stand on platforms waiting for the trains to come. Their daily travels across the city reveal the writing on the walls, the places beneath the surface where meanings appear, like fairies coming out into an urban forest.
Which realities do we remember and choose to record? Brossard has written: "I am an urban woman on the graffiti side of the wall, on the sleepless side of night, on the free side of speech, on the side of writing where the skin is a fervent collector of dawns." And she continues: "I guess it is difficult for me to stay on the island because I am a woman of the written word." I keep imagining her, like my urban fairy, finding her home among the paint-scribbled walls of the city.
In leaving the island behind, Brossard's urban radical also leaves behind the milk-writers and coal-dust-readers whose privilege allows them to construct for themselves an exclusionary world difficult to access, one that begins and ends with Greek culture. Unlike that private world of coded letters, Brossard's work should be imagined as "publicly fiction," kaleidoscopic layers of graffiti that illuminate an opening space of lesbian writing. Further, this contrast between Brossard's public urban fictions and a private Sapphic island represents more than just a difference in decor or geographical predilections. Unlike Brossard's Montreal, Lesbos functions symbolically both as a Utopian escape and as a space of origins. In that sense, Brossard's oeuvre distinguishes itself from an entire Sapphic tradition of lesbian writing by demystifying nostalgia rather than celebrating it. In fact, most of Brossard's writing, in one way or another, uncovers and subverts the nostalgic structures through which a concept of origins is produced.
What is a nostalgic structure, and how is it connected to lesbians, maps, and origins? A nostalgic structure is a system of thought that begins with the idea of return, from the Greek nostos: "the return home." This movement of return takes many different forms, depending on who is thinking nostalgically and what the context of that thinking might be. Most crucially, while the Greeks with their nostos might hold out the promise that, yes, you can return whence you came, nostalgia happens because you can't go home again. What looked like home is an illusion of home, the mirage of a content that disguises a blank.
Let's look at the way feminist theory analyzes gender and patriarchy in the context of a nostalgic structure. In addition to producing economic, sexual, social, and cultural forms of male domination, patriarchy also privileges men over women as thinkers, knowers, and speakers. That unequal dyad of man over woman produces a logic of analogous pairings such as thought over body and spirit over matter. Because women bear children, in a male-dominated system women are symbolically reduced to their corporeal, material form as reproductive bodies. As a result, to be a woman is, symbolically, to be a mother.
The privileging of man over woman as a thinking subject connects the logic of gender described above with the search for origins that lies at the heart of a nostalgic structure. Because thought involves a quest for knowledge, thinking is an activity of seeking that is motivated by desire. As patriarchy's privileged seeker of knowledge, man must construct an other-to-be-known as the object of his desire. And since gender inequality creates man as subject and woman as object and silent other, the object of man's search becomes, metaphorically, the lost mother. As a result, this form of nostalgia becomes a dominant structure of thought in a system that privileges men over women.
However, man's nostalgic quest is a sham because the son can never return to the mother; in fact, patriarchy requires the repeated failure of the son to unite with his lost other. By repeatedly missing her, the son sustains himself as an endlessly desiring subject. In this way, the object of desire—the ever-disappearing woman-as-mother—guarantees the existence of the subject of that desire—the ever-questing son. Man thus comes to exist by differentiating himself from that which he is not: the blank space, the unreachable mother, his silent and invisible other.
Feminist theory shows how a nostalgic structure works to perpetuate patriarchal oppression, but nostalgia also functions within oppressed groups struggling for liberation. For example, some feminist critics have noted the nostalgic structure underlying the desire to retrieve a lost canon of literary foremothers to counter the male-dominated tradition. Similarly, scholars in African-American studies have pointed to a nostalgic longing for "mother Africa" among African-Americans struggling in the context of a white racist culture. Finally, the Sapphic myth highlights the lesbian nostalgia for a Greek source of woman-loving art and culture that would challenge traditional heterosexist models.
While nostalgia has been harnessed for both oppressive and liberatory aims, the structure underlying nostalgic thinking ultimately reinforces a conservative social system. Because nostalgia requires the construction of a blank space, a lost origin to be rediscovered and claimed, it necessarily produces a dynamic of inequality in the opposition between a desiring subject and an invisible other. Further, in a nostalgic structure, an immutable lost past functions as a blueprint for the future, cutting off any possibility for uncertainty, difference, or fundamental change. Because nostalgia is necessarily static and unchanging in its attempt to retrieve a lost utopian space, its structure upholds the status quo.
Focusing on the workings of nostalgia allows me to map Brossard's journey as a lesbian writer in relation to the concept of an originary blank space and, ultimately, to ask political questions about the subversive potential of her writing. From her earliest days as a poet, Brossard has rejected the nostalgic thinking that constructs an empty origin as the lost object of the poet's desire. As Karen Gould points out, for Brossard and others at the avant-garde journal La barre du jour during the late 1960s, "to be modern meant to 'look lucidly into the hole' and to refuse to fill it, rejecting the lure of myth, ideology, and nostalgia." Brossard's early work explores the space of that unfilled hole by inscribing, within literature, literature's own dissolution. Confronted with a blank origin that refuses to hold a content, the poetic subject disappears into the movement of the work itself; both subject and object disappear, and all that remains is the pure desire that brings the work into being.
By the mid-1980s, Brossard's critique of nostalgic thinking had moved from fundamentally aesthetic questions to more explicitly political concerns related to her identity as a woman and as a feminist. Commenting on the influence of Blanchot, on his concept of neutrality, and on the notion of literature as a subjectless space of dissolution, Brossard explains this shift in her thinking:
Blanchot was very important to me. What was involved in the question of neutrality was the white space, which was linked to the question of ecstasy, to the present, the place where the "I" is dispersed to make room for the science of being, its contemplation. Neutrality also meant putting a halt to lyricism and to romanticism, to inspiration, in the ways in which I of course understood these words. Needless to say, neutrality was undoubtedly a fine displacement allowing me to forget that I was a woman, that is to say that I belonged to that category of non-thinkers. Feminist consciousness would de-neutralize me.
Just as Brossard found she could no longer forget she was a woman, so too the identity politics of writing as a lesbian became increasingly important. That recognition gives birth to the "girl in combat in the city," the "urban radical," and the "fabular subject." Brossard rejects the structure of origins that produces "woman" and, in so doing, also questions the nostalgic thinking that produces Lesbos as home of the True Lesbian. As Brossard puts it in reference to the girl in combat in the city:
She is the product of a choice that I make which is to stay in the polis in order to confront patriarchal meaning instead of retiring to the mythic island of the Amazons, whose subtext to me is peace and harmony, while the subject for la cité is the law (not harmony), the written word (not the song), and constant change. The mythic island is in me, in books, and in the women with whom I surround myself.
So while Brossard's "urban radical" doesn't explicitly reject Lesbos and Sappho as empowering cultural symbols, she isn't about to catch the next boat to lesbian paradise either. "I am a woman of the here and now," she says. Brossard begins where she finds herself: in Montreal, on the North American continent, in the material world. That world is plagued with misery and pain, "the silence of bodies elongated by hunger, fire, dogs, the bite of densities of torture" (Brossard's italics); but, that same world also offers hope, possibility, and the creative desire that brings an affirmation of life, "like the ultimate vitality and wisdom."
Brossard not only anchors herself in a city, on a continent, and in a world heavy with the baggage of history and tradition; through her writing she continually creates another city, another continent, and another world as well. Grounded in the reality of the everyday, Brossard's project is also visionary, virtual, aerial. "I am a woman of the here and now, fascinated with the virtual that exists in the species." Thus, while she grounds herself in her own identity—"I am still Nicole Brossard, born in Montreal, with a sense of the history of Quebec and of belonging in that French part of the North American continent"—she also creates the virtual figure of "MA continent," an intuitive dream of a lesbian body as light, lucidity, and transformation. But even in that projection of an opening lesbian space—"(mâ) it's a space / an hypothesis"—the lesbian continent is still grounded in the gravity and the weight of the everyday world:
my continent woman of all the spaces
cortex and flood; a sense of gravity
bringing me into the world
Similarly, in French Kiss, the protagonists are both anchored in Montreal and, to a large extent, part of an infinitely layered, virtual Montreal, "glowing volatile in darkness" among the "illuminated cities issued from the method of writing." Like the characteristically Brossardian hologram, the surface of the city contains other pictures, exposes deeper three-dimensional realities within itself. The city contains the multiplicity of the memories of its inhabitants:
Memory makes itself plural, essential, like the vertigo that foreshadows an aerial vision…. I thus come to imagine myself hologram, real, virtual, three-dimensional in the imperative of coherent light.
Just as a three-dimensional image allows multiple surfaces to appear, so too memory can become plural, synchronic, holographic. One reality doesn't replace the other; rather, they coexist: Homer and Sappho; the French and British empires and the province of Quebec; the lives of Montreal and those of Caughnawaga.
"What's left for our story is to break up and be lost. Caughnawaga's underbrush. Expenditure for a sign." Holographic writing reveals not only the virtual possibilities of future stories and future paths, but also uncovers the breakup and loss of stories that form the fabric of past identities and histories. In the holographic image, both memory and possible futures are pluralized. This Brossardian logic of the hologram exposes a political aspect of nostalgic origin myths. The nostalgic gesture—to create an empty originary place and give it a content—falsely and imperialistically starts from the premise that the space for that content was in fact empty to begin with.
On the surface, the hologram may seem similar to the nostalgic myth. When the holographic picture comes into focus, something flares up but something else slips out of sight, just as the identity of the nostalgic son makes the mother disappear. However, unlike the complementary parts—subject and object, son and mother—of a nostalgic structure, every part of a holographic plate also contains an image of the whole; thus each fragment contains what is real, already there, or in the background, as well as what is virtual, possible, and waiting to be seen. When something flares up and something else disappears, that shift occurs because of a change in focus. So unlike the binary logic of presence and absence underlying the nostalgic gesture, the hologram allows for a synthesis of the multiple layers of realities and fictions contained within it.
Let's take the urban radical again as an example. Grounded in the city, she is a potential victim of rape, injustice, discrimination, and violence. But she is also, simultaneously, projected toward the realm of invented possibilities: another mythic figure, she is the lucid lesbian, "ma continent femme," coming into expression. Similarly, the city she inhabits and reconfigures is not just the reality of modern-day Montreal. The urban landscape that appears is a present-day Montreal thick with histories to be uncovered and, simultaneously, a virtual Montreal to be imagined and created. Brossard's metaphor of holographic writing points to the layered meanings, like the textured surfaces of graffiti on city walls, inscribed in the trace of pen on paper: that trace is both the mark that says "someone was here" and, at the same time, the opening path toward an "unrecorded thought" waiting to be imagined, waiting to be written.
How can the grounding mark and the virtual path coexist in writing? Comparing writing to holograms, Brossard imagines that "sentences," like holographic fragments, "might also contain the whole of what is at stake in a novel." So what is at stake in Brossard's writing? Again, to begin with, what is at stake for me (I want to say us, but my friend Carla won't let me) is the undoing of nostalgic structures. This core of Brossard's work can be examined not just conceptually, but also, more fundamentally, in the particular textured surfaces of the writing itself. In nostalgic writing, when something flares up something else is covered over; when the Greek letter is sprinkled with coal-dust, the blank of its milky origin disappears. In contrast, Brossard's holographic metaphor suggests that a single sentence of her writing would contain, simultaneously: first, the visible lines of the original letter; second, the lines in between, in their manifestation both as milk and coal; and, third, a plurality of other lines tracing other lives lived and other potential lives. It would open up multiple origins and multiple futures. It would invite inclusive communities of readers and writers instead of shutting out all but an educated, Eurocentric elite. So the question remains: does she pull it off? And if so, what does this have to do with lesbian writing?
To begin answering these questions, let's take Montreal in French Kiss as an example: "What's left for our story is to break up and be lost. Caughnawaga's underbrush. Expenditure for a sign." The final page of French Kiss suggests that writing requires an "expenditure": "expenditure for a sign." That expenditure of writing both uncovers a reality by naming what is there and, at the same time, creates a layered vision of a past and future city. But in addition to naming and creating a fictional reality called Montreal, the expenditure of writing also produces a reserve, an excess called Caughnawaga that the name "Montreal" cannot contain:
Leaving the city, now, by Route 2, heading for the Mercier Bridge. Its rusty old steel and worn white lines. Out of line. The blackness of the blue. The river and the Caughnawaga Reserve. [Brossard's emphasis]
So how does Caughnawaga function as the excess and reserve of the writing of Montreal in French Kiss? On a historical level, when Brossard alludes to Caughnawaga, she exposes the "reserve" of native peoples on which a "North American of French descent" identity depends. When that identity was "founded" in 1535 with Jacques Cartier's arrival at the Saint Lawrence River, the blank space on which that founding was inscribed, in fact, wasn't blank at all. Someone was already there:
Montreal surface and totems: "And in the middest of those fieldes is the sayd citie of Hochelaga, placed neere, and as it were ioyed to a great mountaine that is tilled round about, very fertill, on the toppe of which you may see very farre."
Brossard's quotation of Carrier's journal exposes a deeper reality beneath the surface of Montreal. Hochelaga was the city Cartier "discovered" when he traveled up the river in search of a mythical land of gold and jewels called the Kingdom of Saguenay. Standing at the site of modern-day Montreal, Hochelaga was home to over a thousand people who were part of an extensive group of tribes known as the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians. What we know of the Hochelagans comes from Cartier's notebooks and the speculations of scholars who have gathered evidence and unearthed artifacts, thereby mapping their own versions of the history of the Saint Lawrence valley. Most agree that Hochelaga was probably a walled city, that its inhabitants lived and worked in longhouses, and that they subsisted primarily on the planting and harvesting of corn. The arrival of the French most likely drew them into the economy of the fur trade, as it did other native tribes such as the Algonquin, the Montagnais, the Mahican, the Abenaki, the Sokoki, and the Iroquois. Exactly what happened to Hochelaga after the beginning of the European invasion in the sixteenth century will probably never be known with certainty. But by the turn of seventeenth century, the Hochelagans had disappeared.
So "what's left … for our story," for history? What's left is Montreal and Caughnawaga: a French-founded city, and a space outside it designated for the descendants of the native people who survived that founding. What's left for the writing of reality and fiction is the break-up, loss, and symbolic reconstruction of lives lived, of "villages scrambled in the ink of history." In the nostalgic model, the map of French history and culture needs the blank page of its writing: Hochelaga "disappears" and French history moves on. Nostalgic memory would therefore found Montreal on an originary blank, an empty space to be conquered and inscribed with a French identity. In contrast, Brossard's holographic, graffiti memory exposes the real and symbolic violence that produces the illusion of that originary blank. Reading French Kiss is like deciphering the many coats of scrawl that collect as graffiti on subway walls. That graffiti becomes holographic: layers of paint simultaneously come into focus as the many faces of Montreal-Hochelaga. To ignore those layers is to repeat the violence that both replaced Hochelaga with Montreal, and produced the "reserve" called Caughnawaga. "For your whole life," Brossard writes, "you will remember the graffiti in the subway, my only daughter." That uniquely Brossardian graffiti contains the "frescoes, multiple in the prism" that trace the invisible: mapping, as Rich puts it, "the blueprint to a life."
Does Brossard succeed in dismantling the logic of presence and absence at the heart of nostalgia and writing? I would like to think of her work as another kind of lesbian writing that is not just by a lesbian or about lesbians, but which explores the very processes through which people and their stories are made invisible. Such a writing would think about Hochelagans as well as lesbians; and it would tell a story, as in French Kiss, not just of woman-loving tongues swirling in mouths, but also of the genocidal "kiss" of death that is the legacy of the map-makers, fur-trappers, conquerors, and colonizers of this planet. In addition, such a writing would not just replace one story with another, but would restructure the very logic of replacement, reconfiguring the relation between the writing subject and the reserve on which the writing depends. In that sense, this other kind of "lesbian" writing might come to name a thick, holographic, urban poetry in which reality, fiction, and utopia would coexist.
But what would it look like, exactly? Ah, there she would be: "The generic body would become the expression of woman and woman would have wings above all, she'd make (a) sign." Yes, she might disappear for a while, but then I would see her, my urban fairy, tracing spirals of graffiti up and down the walls. A holographic projection—"woman and woman would have wings above all"—there she (and I) would be:
Plunged into the centre of the city, I would dream of raising my eves. FEMME SKIN TRAJECTOIRE. Donna lesbiana dome of knowledge and helix, already I'd have entered into a spiral and my being of air aerial urban would reproduce itself in the glass city like an origin.
There she, and I, would be. We would find each other through the words in their reading, and there we would be: "being of air aerial urban," reproducing ourselves "like an origin," but already changing, spiralling elsewhere.
This reading can only happen, at least for me, in the form of a conditional: it would tell a story … and it would look like this … and there, can't you see? we (or perhaps just I) would be…. That conditional reading, like the hologram, is always there, waiting to be read, waiting to flare up like a flag on a map. But beyond that conditional, more explicitly political questions remain.
What does Brossard's writing say or do for lesbian politics? How does her urban radical work for feminism? Where is the link between the memory of Hochelaga and the contemporary struggles of native peoples in North America? Does the writing itself function as the kind of public fiction that the theory proclaims? Indeed, one of the most commonly heard complaints about Brossard's writing is that it is opaque and inaccessible, that it speaks to an audience of educated elites who share a common practice and way of thinking. Who is reading her, and to whom is she writing? Do her complex urban fictions really speak like graffiti on a subway wall?
What is at stake in her writing? Perhaps that question, more than any other, contains the seeds of my impatience at the difficulty of Brossard's writing. We all live in one world, but privilege allows some of us to choose a room of our own from among many possible worlds. Brossard lives in an urban room filled with fractals, holograms, and virtual realities. And I know that she from her room, as I from mine, wants the world to heal. But who among us can hear her? Some of us need narrative and the prose of preachers, not translucent letters in a metaphorical cyberspace. To be sure, I deeply respect and admire Brossard's holographic writings. But I long for stories that my mother and grandmother might hear.
"And now," says Winterson, stepping out from the wings backstage, "swarming over the earth with our tiny insect bodies and putting up flags and building houses, it seems that all the journeys are done." Alas, we long for stories, but it seems that there are no more earthly places to travel. The world is mapped: there are no more journeys and no more stories to tell. "Not so," I hear, and it's Winterson speaking again. But it could just as easily be Brossard, saying, "Not so! Not so! See, here's another layer of graffiti, another aerial letter!" Okay, I think, so let's look again.
Something's happening beneath the surface, waiting to be noted and marked. It could be my mother, proud, with her lover, on a wide leafy branch of the family tree. It could be my grandmother's century-old heart, beating to the rhythm of my cousin's ship, or measuring time across my uncle's chart. It could be other rhythms and other lives uncovered. stories whose lines on my particular map might only be obvious to me. Who knows what patterns I'll end up tracing? Who knows what I'll end up saying?
More important, who knows what we'll choose to say and do? As Brossard puts it, "I speak to an I to ensure the permanence of the we. If I don't take on that which says we in me, the essence of what I am will have no longevity but the time of one life, mine, and that's too short for us" (translation modified). I think Brossard is one of those cartographers of an invisible I who speaks from the heart of an invisible we. The line of that we runs parallel with mine, for a moment; perhaps, but it also stretches away behind and before me. Of course, we have to constantly ask the question: who are we? For Brossard that asking is part of the struggle. Nothing is given from the start, especially not the origin of an identity. The we can only find itself in the effort and the struggle of the searching.
In that sense Brossard is a map-maker, working for liberation, who can help us pull ourselves together and find our way when we're lost in the forest or adrift at sea. And if it's true that all the journeys aren't done, perhaps it's also true that new maps and new discoveries don't have to efface old ones. "Round and flat," Winterson says, "only a very little has been discovered." So perhaps Brossard can help us to make different maps and different journeys "toward the idea of a future, another shore." And perhaps that future will bring healing to the places erased in violence, uncovering sedimented histories and shifting forms in the spaces on the map where there was never absence, just a "rigorously executed" silence.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4320
SOURCE: "Region/Body: In? Of? And? Or? (Alter/Native) Separatism in the Politics of Nicole Brossard," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 61, Spring, 1997, pp. 1-16.
[In the following essay, Verwaayen discusses the role of separatism in the politics set forth by Brossard in her writing.]
"What kind of message is this?" was one feminist response during a CBC round table (aired on "Prime Time Magazine" in prereferendum October 1995) in reaction to propagandist remarks made by Lucien Bouchard in a recent "yes"-side campaign linking reproduction and the sovereignty project in Quebec. While Bouchard's alienating comments exemplify a centuries-old validation of women through their reproductive function, their assigned use-value in Western tradition, my purpose here is to trace how the patriarchal impetus of the Quebec separatist movement circumscribes feminist aims and to suggest, through the movement from the regional to the international in the fiction of Nicole Brossard, the incompatibility of feminist and Quebec nationalism as discursive constructions. While both separatist and feminist ideologies are interested in issues of sameness and difference, of language/shared cultural experience/history, Brossard's evolving awareness of the incompatibility in definition of the "us/them" dichotomy can be traced throughout her oeuvre, in which physical place (Quebec) becomes supplanted, displaced, by the international feminist body as site for political resistance. For Brossard, ultimately, the linguistic signifier "separatism" spirals into an "other" direction, signalling a process not toward an autonomous, segregated discursive region identified as Quebec but toward an independently cooperative, transnational community of women, a lesbian separatism.
The factious relationship between feminist and sovereigntist interests in 1970s Quebec was not a natural, not an essential, one. It would be a form of imperialism itself to suggest that women inherently cannot engage in political activism as both feminists and nationalists: to argue that women must choose, as Trinh T. Minh-ha says, between ethnicity and womanhood is to participate in the patriarchal system of "dualistic reasoning and its age-old divide-and-conquer tactics." In fact, for many early female separatists, the nationalist movement—with its distrust of the status quo and its discourse of decolonization—seemed to be a forum through which women could challenge their double marginalization as Québécoise; they shared with the male population, as Paula Gilbert Lewis contends, feelings of impotency, inferiority, and alienation (a colonized existence) under the economic and linguistic dominance of English Canada and the powerful hegemony of the Catholic Church. But the 1970 FLF(Q) slogan, "Pas de libération du Québec sans libération des femmes," already signified the tension between feminist and nationalist discourses in Quebec, since the freedom of women was not inherent in the vision of a free Quebec.
Certainly a patriarchal impetus is locatable in some of the major separatist texts of the era, reflecting the kinds of patriarchal inscription exploded in Brossard's oeuvre. In the mid-1960s, texts such as Claude Jasmin's Pleure pas, Germaine and Jacques Ferron's La Nuit portrayed women, like the romans de terre before them, as representations of the earth, of the mother, as terre Québec, as interchangeable entities of imprinted function. In perhaps the most acclaimed separatist text of the era, Hubert Aquin's Prochaine épisode, the narrator's mistress, K., blends indistinguishably into the picture of Venus the first time the protagonist sees her, and throughout the text her identity is mysteriously conflated with that of H. de Heutz's treacherous blonde. (Repeated emphasis on the colour of [both?] women's hair imprints the suggestion of connection. Also, the reiterated wordplay in the original, "ma blonde," used to identify K., suggests that possession/definition is linked to attribute, to woman's objectification in the male gaze.) Furthermore, K. stands as a metaphor for Quebec, la terre that is "le pays qui te ressemble, mon vrai pays natal et secret…." Aquin posits K.'s body in geographically physical terms—but K. is like Quebec not because both are colonized but because of a centuries-old identification (the lay of the land) in which the text seems complicit: "Sur ton lit de sables calcaires et sur tes muqueuses alpestres, je descends à toute allure, je m'étends comme une nappe phréatique, j'occupe tout; je pénètre, terroriste absolu, dans tous les pores de ton lac parlé …" (emphasis added). The text does not seem to explode this violent deposing of woman, her colonization, but to engage in it to serve its nationalist proclivities: "Les noms impurs de nos villes redisent l'infinie conquête que j'ai réapprise en te conquérant,mon amour…. Ton pays natal m'engendre révolutionnaire: sur ton étendue lyrique, je me couche et je vis."
It was in fact this phallocratic law of the father under which the nationalist movement, like patriarchy generally, was largely impelled that induced many female nationalists to distinguish between their oppression as Québécois(es) and as women, to choose to break from the Marxist-Leninist groups that identified the women's movement as secondary to the liberation of working classes and the creation of a sovereign Quebec. As Claude Lizé has said, "les femmes ont compris qu'elles ne pourraient pas participer à la 'joute oratoire' sans renoncer à leur propre discours."
Such difference/différence experienced by women in the movement is articulated early in Brossard's fiction, if authorially absent from her theory. Brossard has stated in an interview her collective involvement with Roger Soublière: "nous avons lu Parti Pris et nous avons compris. Il n'y avait pas à discuter: les positions critiques de cette revue ajoutées à notre expérience quotidienne du Québec … achevèrent de transformer notre impatience en un naturel contestaire." Engaged in the political struggles of Quebec, she shared the goal of the Parti Pris (the journal-organ of the nationalist movement that she helped to found)—that of an independent and socialist Quebec liberated from the political influence of the Catholic Church. Yet in her earliest novel, Un livre, published in 1970, the sexist blindsiding of women in the separatist movement is already manifest in the book's tension between patriarchal nationalism and feminist impulses, a tension not yet theoretically evident in the rhetoric she espoused. In an interview, Brossard has said that "Un livre a été écrit à l'époque où j'avais des préoccupations politiques en rapport avec toute la question nationale, alors que French Kiss est arrivé à un moment où j'étais imbibée … d'informations que touchaient la biologie, l'écologie, le corps [la féminisme]…." The fairly facile split between feminist and nationalist proclivities espoused here is not borne out in the fiction. Although Un livre evinces solidarity with the nationalist movement, a vision of political collectivity imaged throughout in the interchangeability of the text's male and female actors, this interchangeability is exploded by the text. It is not a neutral but a politically loaded representation: the text begs attention to the minutia, invites interpretation of its gaps and interstices, its system of signs in small letters:
Lire O. R., c'est aussi lire Dominique et Mathieu car tous trois s'inscrivent identiques dans le livre…. La lecture … de O. R., Dominique et Mathieu doit être envisagée comme une démarche essentiellement ludique: l'oeil répond aux moindres stimulations AVIS…. Lire: ou faire le tri dans la masse noire des mots…. O. R., assise par terre, jambes croisées, un livres sur les genoux. Un livre qu'elle ne lit pas. Mais qu'elle louche. Dominique et Mathieu, l'un devant l'autre, penchès sur un damier de go, impatients de créer chacun pour soit l'espace vainqueur.
The particulars enumerated are not gratuitous ("l'oeil répond aux moindres stimulations"): the characters are not identical. O. R. is scripted differently from the men around her (all are vaguely identified with the FLQ) despite the text's literal assertion otherwise; she is excluded from the male competition, from the male quest for product. The men are "anxious" not in the pleasure, the ecstasy of the jeu, but in the single desire to master the game; her activity, however, is not end-goal oriented. She delays/defers even the pleasurable act of reading in the process of touching the book.
The women are further unlike the male separatists in the group since O. R. and Dominique C. are scripted, whereas the others are not, in silence: O. R. "n'a rien à dire et c'est Dominique qui parle." Again, although the text tries to suggest on an open level the notion that all the five "variables" in the text are anonymously similar, it is only the women, O. R. and Dominique C., who are identified by initial, by the truncation of a proper name. (The male Dominique needs no other identifying mark.) O. R. identifies her lack of a name with her exclusion from the male realm, the symbolic: "O. R.: initiales. Des lettres à l'origine d'un nom que personne jusqu'ici n'a prononcé." Nameless, she is ever in the service of her use-value: "Garder l'anonymat: être la personne qui écrit au nom de plusieurs autres." Her body is commodified, a unit of exchange, manipulated by Dominique as payment to Mathieu for his debts without her consent.
Thus, for O. R., as for Dominique C., the glass must always be empty—there is little room for female freedom in a movement in which many of the male leaders remain patriarchs, in which women's autonomy is not implied in emancipated discourse. Rarely unfettered, the women are caught instead in the specular vision of the same (this is the explosion of the representation of the indistinguishability of identities represented in the text), which negates difference reflected back against itself: "Dominique la regarde et ne se souvient de rien. La devine dans la distance: une jeune femme parmi les autres." Woman is invisible in the male gaze except as the same (an inferior model of the same, o.r. as conflations of an other, a nothing to see) in a male-dominated movement. That it is only woman who is equated with the subaltern other is evident in the power relations that constitute the text: O. R. is Dominique's visible "cible," the object of his desire, his control: "D'une seule main Dominique couche O. R. à ses côtés. Violemment pourquoi? Parce que selon les règles d'un vieux jeu." Dominique is part of a collective movement organizing for sociopolitical change—but clearly the imperial patriarchy that he seeks to overthrow will be replaced, simply, by a more nationalist (sovereign) one. The conquest here challenged by Brossard is that of the female body, its history of exploitation, abuse, colonization, by men.
Yet the text offers space beyond such containment: O. R.'s desires exceed the command of Dominique's hand. O. R. is liberated from his control of her body, from the societal inscription of its market value, when naked and free on the balcony. Liberated in her nudity, freed from society's clothing/coding of her body, her celebration becomes "le scandale de la liberté" (emphasis added); her act is scandalous because it is transgressive. Phallocratic law cannot read such female jouissance except in signs of denigration. Yet when she/her body is decried "Trop belle, laide, vulgaire, putain," the narrative voice intervenes, overwrites the paternal ownership of meaning in language, for "Etrangement les mots s'accumulent mais ne font guère que s'accumuler." Sings in the phallocratic system can only accrue hollowly upon each other because O. R. exceeds the phatic, swells beyond the conventional agreement/conspiracy between patriarchal society and language: "[elle] vit déjà autre chose. Dominique le sait." Even her shadow (woman's image often mistaken for her self and overwritten by the male gaze into the dream of the same) is, ultimately, "étrangère au regard de Dominique qui entrouve les paupières." She is not the same, she exceeds the same: there is "quelque chose de plus dans le regard de O. R." There is, suggests the text, an ever-increasing "plus" in women's vision, a comprehension of the scripted lack juxtaposed with a growing awareness of plenitude. Thus, in Un livre, already in 1970, the tension between male interests in the nationalist cause and women's role and subjugation by men in the movement is being interrogated, and revolutionary fervour for an independent Quebec is slowly—but surely—yielding presence to feminist concerns:
O. R. troublée parce qu'il s'est agi pendant toute la soirée des autres à travers elle. Parce qu'elle fait partie d'une collectivité qui crève, lentement, le ventre offert. O. R. et Dominique C. partageant leur révolte. Qui s' apaise. Se confond doucement aux caresses qu'elles s'échangent du bout des doigts, de la langue. (emphasis added)
Similar to Un livre, Brossard's second work of fiction, Soldout (published in 1973 and translated into English as Turn of a Pang three years later), ostensibly treats a political commitment to Quebec nationalism in its interrogation of federal control over provincial affairs in its dual treatment of the 1943 conscription crisis and the 1970 invocation of the War Measures Act. As in the earlier novel, there is an articulation of male and female collectivity, a conflation of identities united in a general cause, for the text represents itself as "une histoire de je tu il nous et autres pluriels … dans le microcosme québécois; toutes les phases de la destruction d'ils d'elles…. Se poursuivent le temps de l'animation collective, les inscriptions." Bodies are "mâle et / ou femelle," again an indistinguishable blur. But here, too, the narrative contradicts itself. The masses are not uniform:
Ce qui frappe et déferle déborde la limite effrayant plus que miroir et la révision qu'il impose à l'oeil vision lutte dedans le mur reflétant graduellement image aperçue dans le cadre ovale /quel secret? / on y voit bien d'autres choses mais que les foules ne se ressemblent pas toutes pan toute quand elles produisent des événements HISTORIQUES (hiéroglyphes quand on y songe sur quelle surface? à déterminer en cours de cheminement (les surfaces s'imposent tout autant que les compas qui les pénètrent)).
In Sold-out, the surfaces carved, the sites of inscription, are the texts of women's bodies, phallically overwritten, used/abused in the market exchange, scars that need to be read and interpreted. The textual graffiti is a writing on the wall for women:
ailleurs que sur le mur cela se dessine au pinceau
large entamant la bouche de l'homme politique
LE QUÉBEC AUX QUÉBÉCOIS
sue l'oeil TRAÎTRE, entre les dents, le I phallique
Indépendance retroussant (une impression) le noir
de la moustache fraîchement peinturée.
That the liberation sought "le Québec aux québécois" is a phallically constructed independence as spelled out in the writing on the wall.
For Brossard, to break the code, to shatter the phallocentric law of the same, gender interests must supersede those of Quebec culture and language in the development of her fiction. Whereas separatists work for the preservation of the French language (a sensitivity to language, cultural identity, collective autonomy born out of the English conquest of Quebec in 1769), feminists struggle against the even older oppressive power of this language and attempt to alter this language into new rather than preserved forms. As Luce Irigaray has queried, "Si nous continuons à nous parler le même langage, nous allons reproduire la même histoire." For Brossard, too, language must be r/evolutionized: "comment la femme qui utilise quotidiennement les mots (comédienne, journaliste, écrivain(e), professeur(e)), peut-elle utiliser un language qui, phallocratique, jour au départ contre elle?" As Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin contend, control over language is one of the main features of imperial oppression: "Language becomes the medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is perpetuated, and the medium through which conceptions of 'truth,' 'order,' and 'reality' become established. Such power is rejected in the emergence of an effective post-colonial voice." Marginalized voices must wrest language and writing—with its "signification of authority"—from the dominant culture. "Nous n'avons d'autre repère que nous. Nous sommes entourées de signes qui invalident notre présence," says Lorna Myher (My/her) in Le Désert mauve. Such silence must be shattered, silent e shouted forward: "Il faut que j'apprenne à parler," says one of Brossard's voices; "S'il ne consent, toute ma vie je l'attendrai ce mot de lui. Il parlera à ma place. Toute une vie."
So Brossard breaks the code of silence in order to challenge the hegemony of male discourse; her (de)constructive strategies attempt to outmanoeuvre language, its relegation of women to death, the e muet mutant to explode the breach (birth) between sign and object. In L'Amer ou le chapître effrité, the signifier "I'amèr" (la mére, amére, la mer, l'aimer), for example, suspends the monoreferential in its endless freeplay of meanings: mother, bitter, sea, (to) love. For Brossard,
When a woman invests a word with all her anger, energy, determination, imagination, this word crashes violently into the same word, the one invested with masculine experience. The shock that follows has the effect of making the word burst: certain words lose a letter, others see their letters reform in a different order.
What she wants is writing at degree zero, an écriture blanche emptied into new significations, for "language does not know anything about women—or we should say, rather, that it only knows the clamorous lies that generations of misogynous, sexist phallocrats have repeated to it. In fact, we know that patriarchal language discredits, marginalizes, constitutes the feminine as inferior…." Brossard, however, develops women's desire in language: she places tongue in women's mouths, a sexual/textual French kiss.
This is, for Brossard, the link between textuality and corporeality: the body speaks forth from its ruptured excess, from the space of its traditional erasure. The only access to the symbolic that phallocentrism has historically allowed women is by absence, proxy, exchanged body (real estate), to (re)produce only as mother and to be muffled/muzzled otherwise: "l'homme s'est assuré par là mainmise sur tous les modes de production énergétiques du corps féminin (cerveau, utérus, vagin, bras, jambes, bouche, langue). Dans la mesure où il est fragmenté, le corps de la femme, la femme, ne peut entamer la vision globale de l'homme." But the body bodies forth, overwrites the scarred female cortext (cortext as sign disperses through the notions corps and texte—the body is written in/by language); it becomes the site of political and textual resistance, an other coding to phallocentric inscription. Brossard's work is reactionary, revolutionary; it produces, rather than reproduces, by writing against traditional literary forms and by challenging the representational systems of society (where the representable is male). Plurality, polyvocality,of women's sexual morphology (always already coded in language) breaks the phallocratic law of the same, for woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. To represent this proliferation, this body spiralling, Brossard plays with the gyre as configuration of the mobility and multiplicity, indeterminacy, of the lesbian text; the multiple female body (of the text), its doubleness, deferral, multiple female intertexts, the convulsions of the circle, of the gyre, disrupt the univocal, phallic patrilinearity of patriarchal writing. Ellipses and parentheses like multiple genitalia flower to confound the phallacies of the paternal text, to dissociate the alter/native from the unifying authority of the phallus: "Mais le corps a ses raisons, le mien, sa peau lesbienne, sa place dans un contexte historique, son aire et son contentu politique. Sous mes yeux, les lignes s'arrondissent: linéarité et fragments de linéarité (vous savez les ruptures) se transforment en spirale."
Multiple women's voices also delegitimize monologic origin in male discourse (Brossard's polyphony is a rêve polysémique, a border crossing of textual blank spaces across which touch women's bodies and regard[e]s). For the nationalist movement, solidarity must be internal, not international (the history of Quebec is one of subjection to three imperialisms, French, English, and American, which separatist discourse endeavours to resist), but Brossard's writing exceeds boundaries demarcated by a measurable physical space or territorialization. The textual inscription of her feminism, as for Quebec feminism generally, owes much, as critics have shown, to a cross-fertilization of three distinct cultural perspectives: Québécois, French, and American. Solidarity is bound not by place but by body: territory is that of the imaginary suffused by female subjectivity and feminist consciousness. For Brossard, American feminism is a desirable influence: "le discours des femmes américaines, des féministes m'est extrêmement important, celui de Millet, de Firestone, de Rita May Brown, de Ti-Grace Atkinson. Je me sens beaucoup plus, au niveau des discours d'exploration théoriques, près d'elles." There is sameness in difference not (simply) because "us" is distinct from "them" but because "us" is itself a diverse and polysemous group: "Les écritures de femmes me stimulent énormément parce qu'elles sont aussi très variées, que ce soit celle de France Théoret ou de Virginia Woolf, celle de Wittig ou de Stein." Epigrams in L'Amèr from Luce Irigaray, Virginia Woolf, Mary Barnes, Monique Wittig, Sande Zeig, Anaïs Nin, and Flora Tristan, among others (many, but not all, lesbian women), and Sappho, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, Monique Wittig, Isabel Millee, Viviane Forrester, and others in La Lettre aérienne, establish an international community of women, and these allusions build a shared language and a shared tradition of struggle beyond territorial borders.
Yet there is a distinct and desired physical space in Brossard's writing, though it remains one that serves her international poetics: it is city place, the polis. Brossard's protagonists are, as M. Jean Anderson notes, explicitly urban; the bustle of a metropolitan centre "talks back" to the discourse of la terre, which has constituted the site of a protectionist and paternalist French Canadian history, the space and the state of mind once mythologized as integral to the survival of Quebec as a separate identity, to the survival of la race française, and often imaged as the mother. With the cultural upheaval in the early 1960s and 1970s, and the break-with-the-past mentality of post-World War II urbanization in the province, new nationalist ideology desired to break from agrarian (and Catholic) values, to appropriate for Québécois interests the commercial centres then dominated by anglophone business. But for Brossard, control must be wrested back from patriarchy generally. Her argument is not an economic one for separatist progress but an engagement in the economy of transnational feminism. Her heroines reject the rural Quebec for Montreal, New York, or Florence: Adrienne's story "aurait pu tout aussi bien se passer à Montréal" as in New York. It is the theoretical concept of city, fluid in space, imaged and accessed by women everywhere, rather than an identifiable geographical locale, that is the locus in Brossard's writing.
Certainly "Where is here?" is a different question for women than for men. The "here" that Brossard seeks/speaks in her desire is a feminist utopia, positing women desiring themselves, embracing other women, a choice, an alter/native, rather than the dream of the same. For Brossard, lesbianism subverts the paternal order; like Alice going through the looking glass, she has crossed through (her opening, a birth) to the other side, where things are topsy turvy, no longer reflected back the same:
La différence a prise. S'installe comme lui dans ma vie. M'englobe comme un territoire. Sa différence s'est transformée en pouvoir systématique. Il s'assure dès lors du contrôle des différences.
Modifiant ma function, je me transforme. Travaille le creux du ventre: curetage. Le dérèglement, cataclysme des formes. (emphasis added)
Brossard, as a lesbian, murders the womb, the site of woman's silence, the locus of her use-value, again to engender productivity rather than reproductivity: "J'ai tué le ventre et je l'écris." Sexually, textually, lesbianism constitutes for Brossard "le seul relais plausible pour me sortir du ventre de ma mére patriarcale…. Traverser le symbole alors que j'écris. Une pratique de déconditionnement qui m'amène à reconnaître ma propre légitimité. Ce par quoi toute femme tente d'exister: ne plus être illégitime." To write the lesbian text is to create women's own locus of desire outside the matter of the womb.
This is radical feminism. Patriarchy as a dominantly male colonizer must be subverted, written out in the creative act: "On ne peut inscrire femmes entre elles sans avoir à mesurer l'ampleur de cette petite expression: 'se passer d'un homme,' sans se heurter à la lecture du mur patriarcal sur lequel sont inscrites toutes les lois qui nous séparent de nous-même, qui nous isolent des autres femmes." Ultimately for Brossard, the political "separatism" for which she contends is one that "stresses separation from all aspects of male culture so that women can concentrate on themselves and other women and create their own subjectivity." Her vision is of a new, transnational world order whose trajectory spirals ever outward in its embracing of women: "La solidarité des femmes est la dernière épreuve de solidarité humaine …"; "je travaille à ce que se perde la convulsive habitude d'initier les filles au mâle comme une pratique courante de lobotomie. Je veux en effet voir s'organiser la forme des femmes dans la trajectoire de l'espèce." Concerns for women's place in language and history thus supersede those of Québécois nationalism, in which the identities of the collectivity, les Québécois, are signed (linguistic hegemony) in the masculine: for women to engage in any political struggle constructed as antagonistic toward or as resistant to feminism is to remain Québécois (rather than Québécoises), to participate in the code that defines women synonymously with men. This is the in/definition, the in/difference, of patriarchally constructed nationalism (which interpolates the same)—neo(patriarchal) imperialism of maitres chez nous—that Brossard, one might say, will overturn (with a pang?) in the fluid feminist body, everywhere: mettre, m'être, chez toutes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183
Anthony, Elizabeth. Review of Mauve Desert, by Nicole Brossard. Books in Canada XIX, No. 8 (November 1990): 47.
Asserts that the reader is "frequently enriched by [Brossard's] gambles [in Mauve Desert]; at times, however, her philosophical abstractions so dematerialize the real that we lose the necessary obstruction and grounding of objects' provident solidity."
Baehler, Aline. "Traversée du Désert." Canadian Literature, No. 132 (Spring 1992): 177-79.
Reviews Brossard's A tout regard in French.
Bishop, Neil B. "Installations." Canadian Literature, No. 135 (Winter 1992): 158-60.
Regards Brossard's collection of poems, Installations, as "a joy."
Diehl-Jones, Charlene. "The Dance of Reading." Books in Canada XXII, No. 5 (Summer 1993): 38-40.
Remarks that in Brossard's Green Night of Labyrinth Park "there are moments of great loveliness."
Tilley, Jane. "Found Again." Canadian Literature, Nos. 138/139 (Fall/Winter 1993): 166-67.
Asserts the importance of Anthologie de la poésie des femmes an Québec, edited by Brossard and Lisette Girouard, to the canon of poetry in Quebec.