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Wittig, Monique (1935-2003)  
 
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Monique Wittig startled her audience at the Modern Language Association Convention in 1978 when she announced with conviction, "I am a lesbian not a woman." Controversial and brilliant, Wittig produced some of the most challenging fictional and theoretical work of second-wave feminism.

Internationally recognized as a talented experimentalist, Wittig's goal was to "pulverize the old forms and formal conventions." "It is quite possible for a work of literature to operate as a war machine upon its epoch," she said, not by direct political intervention, but rather by linguistically "universalizing" a particular point of view.

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Monique Wittig was born in 1935 in Alsace, France; her father was Henri Dubois, a poet. She attended the Sorbonne and studied with some of the great French intellectuals of the time.

Her first book L'Opoponax, published in Paris in 1964 when she was 28, won the prestigious Prix Médicis and garnered high praise from well-established French writers Marguerite Duras and Natalie Sarraute and, in America, from Mary McCarthy.

The book, about childhood, was purely descriptive and objective, relentlessly in the present and subversively inclusive. Its universalizing point of view provoked readers to enter its world. "I see, I breathe, I chew, I feel through her eyes, her mouth, her hands, her skin ... I become childhood," wrote Claude Simone in his review.

Translated into English two years later, it was favorably reviewed in the most prestigious literary publications--The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker--as a virtuoso work of avant-garde writing.

Les Guérillères, published five years after Wittig's first book, is a structured series of prose poems, again revolutionary in form and language, but this time revolutionary in politics also. In this chronicle of epic warfare, elles are the sovereign presence, conquerors of the world and the word.

Elles are not "the women"--a mistranslation that often surfaces in David Le Vay's English rendition--but rather the universal "they," a linguistic assault on the masculine collective pronoun ils.

For Wittig, gender in language is the "fictive sex." Linguistic gender marks social convention, she says in an essay entitled "The Mark of Gender," "cast[ing] sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it." Thus, as women are marked by gender in language (particularly French), so are they marked in the social world, always particular, never universal as is "man."

Other masculine conventions, such as the power of the phallus, are refused and examined for absurdity: "They do not say that vulvas with their elliptical shape are to be compared to suns, planets, innumerable galaxies.... They do not say that the vulva is the primal form which as such describes the world in all its extent, in all its movement. They do not in their discourses create conventional figures derived from these symbols."

Seen as a book emerging from Women's Liberation, Les Guérillères was not as enthusiastically received as L'Opoponax. Nevertheless, it is probably the most widely read of any of Wittig's books to date.

A progression in Wittig's work toward lesbian subjectivity reached its explicit statement in her third and most controversial book, Le Corps lesbien (1973). Appropriating sources as varied as Greek mythology and the Christian mass, Wittig "lesbianizes" familiar figures: Ulyssea returns from her long voyage to the Amazon islands; the veil of Christa "the much-crucified" illuminates the anguished body; and Sappho, a lesbian legend in her own right, is elevated to the stature of a goddess.

In the title itself, the linguistic difficulty surfaces--the masculine body (le corps) is lesbian. Although in English the title, The Lesbian Body, presents no contradiction, the book is introduced with an author's note that explains the pronoun manipulations that were, in effect, the subject of each of her books--the "motors for which functioning parts had to be designed."

The form of Le Corps lesbien is a cycle of poems rather than a narrative. In almost every poem, the characters, j/e (I) and tu (you) violently tear each other to pieces in the process of love. The violence of this book--which one reviewer called "misanthropic"--is disturbing on a number of levels.

The slashed pronoun j/e embodies the violence of women's entry into language. The dismembering and devouring of the characters are performed with passionate precision: "M/y most delectable one I set about eating you. ... Having absorbed the external part of your ear I burst the tympanum, I feel the rounded hammerbone rolling between m/y lips, m/y teeth crush it, I find the anvil and the stirrup-bone, I crunch them...."

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