Wittig, Monique 1935-2003
WITTIG, Monique 1935-2003
PERSONAL: Born July 13, 1935, in Alsace, France; immigrated to United States, 1976; died of a heart attack, January 3, 2003, in Tucson, AZ; daughter of Henri Dubois (a poet). Education: Attended Sorbonne, University of Paris.
CAREER: Writer and educator. Worked for Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France; Editions de Minuit, proofreader, 1964; lecturer; visiting professor, University of California–Berkeley, 1976-77, 1987–88; University of Maine, 1977-76; New York University, 1981-92; University of Southern California–Los Angeles, 1983-84; Duke University, 1986-87; and Vassar College, 1988-89; University of Arizona, Tucson, professor of French literature until 2003. Member of editorial collective of Questions Féministes, Paris, 1977-80; advisory editor, Feminist Issues, Berkeley, CA, 1980-91.
MEMBER: Mouvement de liberation des femmes, Féministes Revolutionaires, Gouines rouges,
AWARDS, HONORS: Prix Medicis, 1964, for L'Opoponax; First International Colloquium around the work of Wittig, Columbia University (Paris, France), 2001.
L'Opoponax (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1964, translated by Helen Weaver as The Opoponax, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1966.
Les Guérillères (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1969, translated by David Le Vay and published under same title, Viking (New York, NY), 1971.
Le Corps lesbien (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1973, translated by Le Vay as The Lesbian Body, Morrow (New York, NY), 1975.
(With Sande Zeig) Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes, Grasset, 1976, translated by Wittig and Zeig as Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary, Avon (New York, NY), 1979.
(With Sande Zeig) Le Voyage sans fin, published in the Programme of the Compagnie Renaud-Barrauld Production, Paris, France, 1985, translated by Barbara Godard as The Constant Journey: An Introduction, in Modern Drama, (Toronto, CA), Spring, 1996.
Virgile, non (novel), Editions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1985, translated by Le Vay and Margaret Crosland as Across the Acheron, P. Owen (London, England), 1987.
The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1992.
plays and films
L'Amant vert, produced in Bolivia, 1969.
(With Sande Zeig) The Constant Journey produced at Goddard College, 1984 as Le Voyage sans fin; produced in Paris, 1985.
(With Sande Zeig) The Girl (feature film directed by Zeig), 2001.
(With Herbert Mancuse) Herbert Mancuse, L'Homme Unidimensionnel, Minuit (Paris, France), 1968.
(With Vera Alves da Nobrega and Evelyne le Garrec) Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Fatima Velho da Costa ("the three Marias"), Nouvelles Lettres Portugaises, Seuil (Paris, France), 1974.
(Translator) Marthe Rosenfeld, Le Cheval de Troie, Vlasta (Paris, France), 1985.
Contributor of short stories and essays to periodicals such as Le Genre Humain, Le Nouveau Commerce, Nouvelle Revue Française, Questions Féministes, Vlasta, Amazones d'hier, Lesbiennes d'aujourd'hui, Cahiers Renaud-Barrault, Diagraphe, and others.
SIDELIGHTS: French writer Monique Wittig was a radical feminist who earned particular distinction with her avant-garde novels. Her fiction has been championed by such masters as Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and while she remains best known—at least in the United States—within the feminist academic community, she also drew the attention of numerous mainstream American and British reviewers, some of whom recognized her as a key advocate of experimental writing. Her experimentalism, however, is inevitably tied to her feminism. As Christine Froula noted in Women's Review of Books, "Wittig stations herself at the front in the war against women's domination by male culture. Her weapon, her technology, is language."
Wittig published her first work, L'Opoponax, in 1964, when she was still in her late twenties. Later translated as The Opoponax, it is a novel about the experience of childhood. The work concerns various children undergoing typical childhood experiences and sensations, including such signature moments as the first day of school, the first romance, and the discovery of sexual differences. Among the novel's more intriguing characters is Reine Dieu, a relatively rebellious girl who enjoys particular notoriety among the adults, who exist as peripheral figures. But even with Reine Dieu behavior is documented, not explained. As Jean Duffy observed in her Dictionary of Literary Biography entry, "Wittig's prime interest is with the child's Lebenswelt, the way in which he or she perceives reality and learns about it."
Formally, The Opoponax represents a child's perspective, with events and experiences frequently recorded in an unorthodox manner that duplicates the child's still developing cognizance. And the work's time frame is entirely that of the present, as if experiences are undergone even as they are recounted within the text. Punctuation, too, is minimal, and depictions of events accordingly flow or lurch into succeeding episodes. Mary McCarthy, writing in New Statesman about the novel's original, French-language edition, declared that its short sentences "often sound like a glum Sunday letter written home to parents." For McCarthy, The Opoponax provides "a new insight into childhood and the educative process."
The Opoponax enjoyed an enthusiastic reception upon its initial publication in France, and it soon gained recognition as a pivotal work on childhood. When the novel appeared in English translation in 1966, it realized further acclaim as a daring and provocative achievement. Naomi Bliven, in her New Yorker review, noted the novel's "stunning literary bravura" and hailed The Opoponax as "a charming feat of virtuosity." Similarly, Virgilia Peterson wrote in the New York Times Book Review that with The Opoponax Wittig "has made … a brilliant re-entry into childhood." Peterson added, "In both form and content, The Opoponax is a revolutionary story."
Wittig followed The Opoponax five years later with Les Guérillères, a novel about women warriors devoted to opposing man's sexist world order. In this work, which is structured as a series of related prose poems, male culture—with its phallic representations—is replaced by emphasizing female sexual parts, though this new, female culture is soon modified by the women themselves. Jean Duffy noted as much in the Dictionary of Literary Biography when she wrote, "Having given female sexuality its place in discourse, [the women] refuse to define themselves in terms of genitalia, and narcissism has given way to coordinated action." After having established a female-oriented culture, the women wage ferocious combat against their male antagonists. By novel's end the women have triumphed. Their victory, however, comes not with man's extermination but with his realization and acceptance of the absolute necessity of a new, equal order.
While Les Guérillères failed to match the acclaim accorded its predecessor, The Opoponax, it nonetheless received substantial critical praise. Sally Beauman, for instance, hailed it in the New York Review of Books as "the first imaginative work of fiction in which the battle between the sexes is fought in Women's Liberation terms." Beauman added that the novel is "clear testimony to at least one woman's wit and intelligence and imaginative." Equally impressed was Laura G. Durand, who wrote in Novel that Les Guérillères is "intelligent and sensitive fiction." Durand affirmed that Wittig's radical novel "offers hope for the growth of a feminist literature that is truly, artistically literature while remaining profoundly feminist."
Le Corps lesbien, Wittig's next novel, which was translated as The Lesbian Body, is a series of intense, even violent prose poems extolling the virtues of the female body and lesbian love. Anatomy and cruelty seem the essence of this work, which features several lists of both female body parts and sadistic things that can be done with them. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer contended that "Wittig's ideas on love would be enough to send any timid souls … to a nunnery." John Sturrock, writing in the New York Times Book Review, alleged that The Lesbian Body was even "misanthropic."
Wittig collaborated with Sande Zeig on Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes, translated as Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary. Here male-oriented perceptions of myth and history are replaced by pro-female representations and commentaries in a rewriting of women's history. A reviewer for the Washington Post Book World recommended Lesbian Peoples as a "highly imaginative" reference.
Wittig's next novel, Virgile, non, translated as Across the Acheron, is structured as a parody of Dante's Divine Comedy. In Wittig's work, however, Purgatory has been replaced by Limbo, and the distinct circles of Hell have been eliminated entirely. As narrating protagonist Wittig is led through Hell, Limbo, and Paradise, she makes some shattering, and even amusing, discoveries. Hell for instance, is San Francisco, which is full of men, thus constituting, for its inhabitants, Paradise. The damned, however, are those women who profess to thrive in the male-oriented world. These women are forced to pose as prostitutes or are maimed and killed. Paradise is, apparently, reserved for militant lesbians who have discovered their oppression in the male world. This awareness inspires these lesbians to reconsider and reorganize the social order. Wittig calls this "the science of oppression created by the oppressed." Christine Froula, writing in Women's Review of Books, described Across the Acheron, as "luminously imagined."
Wittig's play Le Voyage sans fin (The Constant Journey) was written with regular collaborator Sande Zeig and produced in Paris in 1985. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jean Duffy reflected that this work "thematically reads like an abstract of Wittig's dominant preoccupations." Le Voyage sans fin relates the travels of a female Don Quixote (and was produced with an all-female supporting cast). "The play reprises … the themes found in Wittig's writings," said Edith Benkov in Gay and Lesbian Biography. "On the level of performance and stagecraft, it is both bold and innovative in its conception."
"The boldness of Wittig's philosophical vision appears clearly in The Straight Mind," said a reviewer forFeminist Writers. The Straight Mind, a collection of Wittig's essays, develops her theories of "materialist lesbianism," and "straight mind," a phrase she coined. "Wittig considers heterosexuality as the main source of women's oppression," the reviewer continues, "since it serves to maintain two 'categories of sex,' establishing one sex as possessing all universal values and all social power, and the other as playing only a complementary and submissive role." In this series of nine relatively short essays, Wittig makes the argument that women must refuse "both 'woman's role' and the 'economic, ideological, and political power of a man,'" essayist Julia Creet wrote in the Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories. Wittig's essays are revolutionary and archetypal to contemporary lesbianism theory, and with the publication of The Straight Mind, they can be accessed in one convenient vessel.
The Straight Mind is not considered to be an easy read. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly described Wittig's prose as "methodical and aggressive, combative and dense." However, the same reviewer stated: "The author is at her most elegant in the literary essays, which explicate the complex relationship between literary form and ideology." In the International Gay and Lesbian Review Online, Celesta Akins remarked that Wittig's writing in The Straight Mind offers "positive contributions to feminist and queer theory, in particular her deconstruction of the term 'woman' and her focus on the power of language." Akins added the caveat that Wittig's work should be read critically.
Witting died of a heart attack after taking a walk on January 3, 2003. She will be remembered, according to Benkov, for the themes of language and lesbian subjectivity that became her signature style, and for her ability to rework a "familiar genre or text" in such a way that it "plays an integral part in her rebellion against a phallocentric construction of society." While her revolutionary theories are not the sole reason her memory will live on, perhaps one belief in particular is most memorable and most often quoted: Wittig argued that lesbians are not women. Her defense of this belief was based on the idea that because the word "woman" has been tainted by the male-perpetuated oppression of females, and because a lesbian, by definition, rejects male domination, a lesbian is her own sex, one governed outside of a heterosexual context and definition.
A reviewer for Feminist Writers commented that Wittig's "creative writings exert a deep fascination through the clarity and concision of their style, which conveys innovative images and beautifully colored vignettes. They first appeal to the eyes and imagination of the reader/spectator who, haunted by Wittig's vision and unusual formal experimentation, feels compelled to assemble their somewhat jagged fragmented pieces into a meaningful whole."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atack, Margaret, and Phil Powrie, editors, Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, University Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Butler, Judith, editor, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge (New York, NY), 1990.
Code, Lorraine, editor, Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories, Routledge (New York, NY), 2000.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Crosland, Margaret, Women of Iron and Velvet, Taplinger (New York, NY), 1976.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 83: French Novelists since 1960, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Doan, Laura, editor, The Lesbian Postmodern, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Evans, Martha Noel, editor, Masks of Transition: Women and the Politics of Writing in Twentieth-Century France, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1987.
Farwell, Marilyn R., Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Friedman, Ellen G., editor, Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction, Princeton University Press (Princeton), 1989.
Fuss, Diana, editor, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference, Routledge (New York, NY), 1989.
Dehler, Johanna, Fragments of Desire: Sapphic Fictions in Works by H. D., Judy Grahn, and Monique Wittig, Peter Lang Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
Gelfland, Elissa, and Virginia Hules, editors, French Feminist Criticism. Women, Language, and Literature: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland (New York, NY), 1996.
Hughes, Alex, and Kate Ince, editors, French Erotic Fiction: Women's Desiring Writing, (Madison, WI), 1976.
Hughes, Alex, and James S. Williams, editors, Gay Signatures: Gay and Lesbian Theory, Fiction and Film in France, 1945-1995, Berg (New York, NY), 1998.
Jay, Karla, and Joanne Glasgow, editors, Lesbian Texts and Contexts, University Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Kester-Shelton, Pamela, editor, Feminist Writers, St.
James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Kleist, Jurgen, and Bruce A. Butterfield, editors, Re-Naming the Landscape, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1994.
Langford, Michele K., editor, Contours of the Fantastic: Selected Papers from the Eighth Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1994.
McCarthy, Mary, The Writing on the Wall, and Other Literary Essays, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1970.
Morse, Donald E., Marshall B. Tymn, and Csilla Bertha, editors, The Celebration of the Fantastic: Selected Papers from the Tenth Anniversary International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1992.
Neuman, Shirley, and Glennis Stephenson, editors, Lesbianizing Love's Body: Interventionist Imag(in)ings of Monique Wittig, University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Canada), 1993.
Ostrovsky, Erika, editor, A Constant Journey: The Fiction of Monique Wittig, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1991.
Pope, Randolph D., editor, The Analysis of Literary Texts: Current Trends in Methodology, Bilingual Press (Ypsilanti, Michigan), 1980.
Stambolian, George, editor, Twentieth-Century French Fiction: Essays for Germaine Bree, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1975.
Stambolian, Marks, and George Stambolian, editors, Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1979.
Textual Escap(e)ades: Mobility, Maternity, and Textuality in Contemporary Fiction by Women, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1994.
Tyrkus, Michael J., editor, Gay and Lesbian Biography, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Tymieniecka, Anna-Teresa, editor, Poetics of the Elements in the Human Condition, volume II, The Airy Elements in Poetic Imagination, Klewer (Dordrecht Netherlands), 1988.
Weed, Elizabeth, editor, Politics of the Three Women, Routledge (New York, NY), 1989.
Wolfe, Susan J., and Julia Penelope, editor, Sexual Practice, Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism, Blackwell (New York, NY), 1993.
Woodhull, Winnie, and Patricia S. Yaeger, editors, Power, Gender, Values, (Toronto, Canada), 1987.
Zupancic, Metka, editor, Mythes dans la litterature d'expression française, Le Nordir (Ontario, Canada), 1994.
Actuel, January, 1974, "Monique Wittig et les Lesbiennes Barbues: Entretien avec Monique Wittig," p. 82.
Advocate, February 25, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 82.
Atlantic, November, 1971.
Atlantis, spring-summer, 1994, Dianne Chisholm, "Violence against Violence against Women: An Avant-Garde for the Time."
Belles Lettres, summer, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 26.
Bloomsbury Review, January, 1993, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 12.
Booklist, February 1, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 998.
Bucknell Review, 1982, Diane Griffin Crowder, "The Semiotic Functions of Ideology in Literary Discourse."
Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, September, 1994, Catherine Nelson-McDermott, "Postmodernism Meet the Great Beyond: Les Guérillères and Le Corps Lesbien."
Comparative Literature, 1992, Kathleen L. Komar, "Elles and the Ladies of Orange: Monique Wittig's Deconstructive Use of Epic."
Contemporary Literature, summer, 1983, Diane Griffin Crowder, "Amazons and Mothers? Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous and Theories of Women's Writing."
differences, spring, 1991, Linda M. G. Zerilli, "Rememoration or War? French Feminist Narrative and the Politics of Self-Representation."
Feminist Studies, summer, 1981, Helene Vivienne Wenzel, "The Text as Body/Politics"; 1988, Molly Hite, "Writing and Reading the Body: Female Sexuality and Recent Female Fiction"; 1990, Penelope J. Englebrecht, "Lifting Belly Is a Language."
Forum for Modern Language Studies, October, 1983, Jean H. Duffy, "Language and Childhood: L'Opoponax by Monique Wittig."
French Review, October, 1986, Cecile Lindsay, "Body/Language: French Feminist Utopias"; March, 1990.
Frontiers, spring-summer, 1981, Marthe Rosenfeld, "Language and the Vision of a Lesbian-Feminist Utopia in Wittig's Les Guérillères."
Hudson Review, summer, 1966.
Hypatia, 1988, Jeffner Allen, "Poetic Politics: How the Amazons Took the Acropolis"; fall, 1991, Karin Cope, "Plastic Actions: Linguistic Strategies in Le Corps Lesbien"; winter, 1994, Namascar Shaktini, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 9.
International Fiction Review, January, 1976, Mary Pringle Spraggins, "Myth and Ms.: Entrapment and Liberation in Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères,"p.3.
Journal of Women in Culture and Society, summer, 1993, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 964.
Lamda Book Report, March, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 28.
L'Esprit Createur, fall, 1989, Lawrence M. Porter, "Writing Feminism: Myth, Epic, and Utopia in Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères"; winter, 1994, Kristine J. Anderson, "Lesbianizing English: Wittig and Zeig Translate Utopia."
Library Journal, January, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 117.
Listener, July 8, 1971.
Modern Drama, spring, 1996, Jeannelle Laillou Savona, "Lesbians on the French State: From Homosexuality to Monique Wettig's Lesbianization of the Theatre."
Mosaic, spring, 1984, Marthe Rosenfeld, "The Linguistic Aspect of Sexual Conflict: Monique Wittig's Le Corps Lesbien."
Ms., January, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 62.
New Statesman, July 2, 1971; July 24, 1987.
New Yorker, June 2, 1966.
New York Review of Books, December 1, 1966; December 16, 1971.
New York Times, November 9, 1971.
New York Times Book Review, October 10, 1971; November 23, 1975; July 21, 1985.
Nottingham French Studies, 1993, Owen Heathcote, "Masochism, Sadism, and Women's Writing: The Examples of Marguerite Duras and Monique Wittig."
Nouvelles Questions Féministes, winter, 1985, Christine Delphy, "La Passion selon Wittig."
Novel, fall, 1974.
Observer, August 2, 1987.
Pre-Text, 1992, Shelton Waldrep, "Deleuzian Bodies: Not Thinking Straight in Capitalism and Schizophrenia," p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 51.
Resources for Feminist Research, December, 1987, Julia Creet, "Speaking in Lesbian Tongues: Monique Wittig and the Universal Point of View."
Revue des Sciences Humaines, 1991, Marcelle Marini, "Enfance en Archipels: L'Opoponax de Monique Wittig."
Saturday Review, July 2, 1966.
Signs, Autumn, 1982.
Stanford French Review, winter, 1983 Jean H. Duffy, "Women and Language in Les Guérillères."
Sub-Stance, 1976, Lynn Higgins, "Nouvelle Nouvelle Autobiographie: Monique Wittig's Le Corps lesbien."
Theatre Journal, May, 1988, Teresa de Lauretis, "Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation."
Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 1965; April 16, 1970; June 4, 1970; January 4, 1974; August 15, 1975.
Trivia, fall, 1984, "The Dream Is the Bridge: In Search of Lesbian Theatre."
University Press Book News, March, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 23.
Utopian Studies, 1991, Kristine Anderson, "Encyclopedic Dictionary as Utopian Genre: Two Feminist Ventures."
Village Voice, November 2, 1972; June 30, 1992, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays, p. 66.
Vlasta, June, 1985, Susanna Stampanoni, "Un Nom pour tout le Monde: L'Opoponax de Monique Wittig."
Washington Post Book World, February 17, 1980.
Women's Review of Books, May, 1988.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1965; summer, 1977; winter, 1986.
Yale French Studies, 1981, "Pre-Texts for the Transatlantic Feminist," p. 62; 1988, Alice A. Jardine and Anne M. Menke, Exploding the Issue (interview).
International Gay and Lesbian Review Online, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (2000), Celesta Atkins, review of The Straight Mind and Other Essays.
QueerTheory.com, http://www.queertheory.com/ (November 15, 2003), reviews of The Lesbian Body, Fragments of Desire, and The Myth of Woman.
Guardian, February 5, 2003.
Independent, January 9, 2003.
Off Our Backs, March-April, 2003.
Out in the Mountains Online, http://www.mountainpridemedia.org/ (November 15, 2003), Judith Beckett, "Monique Wittig: Obituary."
QueerTheory.com, http://www.queertheory.com/ (November 15, 2003), "Monique Wittig: Obituary."
University of Arizona Web site, http://www.coh.arizona.edu/ (January 22, 2003), Marie-Pierre Le Hir, "In Memoriam Dr. Monique Wittig."*