Monique Wittig

Biography

Photo by Colette Geoffroy, with thanks to Monique Wittig's literary estate

Monique Wittig was born on 13 July 1935, in the Haut-Rhin département of Alsace. She moved to Paris in the 1950s, where she studied at the Sorbonne. Prior to publishing her first novel, she worked as a teacher, and as part of editorial teams (including at Les Éditions de Minuit, contributing to the 1963 edition of the Dictionnaire des rues historiques de Paris).

Jerôme Lindon turned down her first manuscript, La Méchanique, but accepted L’Opoponax, published in 1964, and awarded the Prix Médicis. The panel of judges included important nouveau roman figures, including Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon. Wittig was awarded the prize after the second round of judging, with nine votes in her favour. The novel attracted considerable media attention, as did the award of the prize, with Claude Simon noting ‘je vois, je respire, je mâche, je sens par ses yeux, sa bouche, ses mains, sa peau. Je ne suis plus moi, je ne suis pas non plus une certaine fille: je deviens l’enfance’ (L’Express, 30 November-6 December 1964). In a similar vein, for Marguerite Duras, the novel was ‘à peu près sûrement le premier livre moderne qui ait été fait sur l’enfance’ (France Observateur, 5 November 1964).

The end of the 1960s saw a period of social turmoil in France, which laid the foundation for various movements, including the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF), of which Wittig was a prominent member. In 1968, her translation of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man was published by Éditions de Minuit as L’Homme unidimensionnel. A year later, in 1969, her second novel, Les Guérillères, was published by the same publishing house. Wittig continued her work on pronouns, started in L’Opoponax, highlighting the gender bias existent in general pronominal forms, like ‘ils’. L’Opoponax is marked by the use of ‘on’ (as the children are still immune to gender differences), while her second novel has ‘elles’ as its protagonists, a group of self-sufficient women attempting to re-inscribe their bodies and experiences into history and culture. Monique Wittig was part of the group of women who, on 26 August 1970, laid a wreath of flowers at the Arc to Triomphe for the Unknown Soldier’s wife. The event caused a great stir in the media, and it is seen to mark the birth of the MLF.

1973 saw the publication of her third novel, Le Corps lesbien, a lesbian Song of Songs, where a split subject, ‘j/e,’ is constantly dismembering and re-membering the body of the loved one. Two years later, in 1975, Le Brouillon pour un Dictionnaire des Amantes, co-written with her partner Sande Zeig, was published by Grasset. The dictionary recreates a feminist/lesbian mythology, carving out a space for women’s histories and desires. Soon after, in 1976, Wittig moved to the United States, taking up various university teaching posts (Berkeley, University of Southern California, University of California Davis, New York, Duke, University of Arizona, etc.), and focusing on her theoretical and philosophical writings.

Questions féministes was created in 1977, with Monique Wittig part of the editorial team, until the dissolution of the magazine, and the creation of Feminist Issues in 1980. In 1978, at the MLA conference in New York, Wittig delivered her ‘The Straight Mind’ speech, ending with the now famous ‘lesbians are not women’. While this sentence has been subsequently (mis-)interpreted, it relates to Wittig’s understanding of the woman: ‘it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for "woman" has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems’ (‘The Straight Mind’).

Wittig completed her doctoral thesis, 'Le Chantier littéraire', in the 1980s (the thesis was defended in 1986), under Gérard Genette’s supervision at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In 1982, she translated Djuna Barnes’s La Passion, writing its ‘Avant-note’ (also available in The Straight Mind as ‘The Point of View: Universal or Particular’). On 30 and 31March 1984, The Constant Journey, a play written by Wittig, and directed with Sande Zeig, was performed at Haybarn Theatre, Goddard College. It was shown shortly afterwards (May-June 1985) in Paris, at the Théâtre du Rond Point.

Virgile, Non was also published the same year, presenting the protagonist – Wittig – as she embarks on a Dantean, katabatic journey. However, in this version, Wittig faces the horrors of recent history (for example World War II and colonialism), and the incessant suppression of women’s needs and individualities. Wittig’s failed attempts to save the damned souls highlight the fact that freedom cannot be imposed on others. The text is replete with intertextual references to San Francisco, women’s movements, and even to Anita Bryant’s homophobic campaign. Wittig’s essay collection was published in English in 1992 (The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)), bringing together texts previously published in various journals, or delivered at conferences. The essays cast an important light on Wittig’s work as a writer, but also as an activist and radical, material feminist. Her collection of short stories was published in 1999 by POL – Paris-la-politique – continuing the vein of her previous novels. In 2001, the French translation of The Straight Mind was published by Éditions Balland, as La Pensée Straight. The same year, Sande Zeig’s film The Girl was released, with a screenplay by Wittig and Zeig. Also in 2001, the first conference focusing exclusively on Wittig’s work was organised in Paris, bringing together speakers from Europe and North America.

Monique Wittig passed away on 3 January 2003, in Tucson, Arizona. Le Chantier littéraire was published posthumously in 2010 by Éditions iXe and Presses Universitaires de Lyon. Her papers were acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. As 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of L’Opoponax an app was launched to accompany the reading of the novel. Users are introduced to the press reception of the novel in 1964, as well as to various translations of the text and recordings in multiple languages of the final pages, providing an initial taste of the univers wittiguien.

Compiled by Sandra Daroczi (Exeter)

Bibliography

L’Opoponax (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1964)

Les Guérillères (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1969)

Le Corps lesbien (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1973)

Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes [with Sande Zeig] (Paris: Grasset, 1975)

Virgile, Non (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1985)

Le Voyage sans fin (Paris: Vlasta, 1985)

The Straight Mind and Other Essays [foreword by Louise Turcotte] (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992) [the essays in the collection had previously been published in journals and magazines, mostly in English]

Paris-la-politique (Paris: POL, 1999) [most of the short stories in the volume had previously been published in journals and magazines]

La Pensée Straight (Paris: Balland, 2001) [French translation of The Straight Mind and Other Essays]

Le Chantier littéraire (Paris/Lyon: Éditions iXe/Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 2010)

English Translations of Wittig’s Work

Les Guérillères [translation of Les Guérillères by David Le Vay] (London: Peter Owen, 1971; New York: Avon, 1973; Boston: Beacon, 1985)

The Lesbian Body [translation of Le Corps lesbien by Davis Le Vay] (London: Peter Owen, 1975; New York: Avon, 1976)

The Opoponax [translation of L’Opoponax by H. Weaver] (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976)

Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary [translation of Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes ] (New York: Avon, 1979; London: Virago, 1980)

Across the Acheron [translation of Virgile, Non by David Le Vay and Margaret Crosland] (London: Peter Owen, 1987)


Compiled by Sandra Daroczi (Exeter)

 

Criticism

Allen, Jeffner: ‘Poetic Politics: How the Amazons Took the Acropolis’ (Hypatia 3.2, Summer 1988, pp. 107-122)

Auclerc, Benoît et Chavalier, Yannick (eds.): Lire Monique Wittig aujourd’hui (Lyon: Presses Universitaire de Lyon, 2012)

Birkett, Jennifer: ‘Sophie Ménade: The Writing of Monique Wittig’ in French Erotic Fiction: Women’s Desiring Writing, 1880-1990 ed. by Alex Hughes and Kate Ince (Oxford/Washington DC: Berg, 1996, pp. 93-119)

Bourcier, Marie-Hélène and Robichon, Suzette (eds.): Parce que les lesbiennes ne sont pas des femmes… Autour de l’œuvre politique, théorique et littéraire de Monique Wittig (Paris: Éditions Gaies et Lesbiennes, 2002 [Conference papers from 16-17 June 2001, Columbia University, Paris])

Bourque, Dominique: Écrire l’inter-dit: la subversion formelle dans l’œuvre de Monique Wittig (Paris, Budapest/Kinshasa: L’Harmattan, 2006)

Butler, Judith: ‘Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex’ in Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity [Part 3, Subversive Bodily Acts] by Judith Butler (New York/London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 151-174)

—: ‘Wittig’s Material Practice’ (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4, 2007, pp. 519-533)

Cooper, Sarah: Relating to Queer Theory: Rereading Sexual Self-Definition with Irigaray, Kristeva, Wittig and Cixous (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2000)

Cope, Karin: ‘Plastic Actions: Linguistic Strategies and Le Corps lesbien’ (Hypatia 6.3, 1991, pp. 74-96)

Cox, Fiona: 'Monique Wittig' in Sibylline Sisters: Virgil’s Presence in Contemporary Women’s Writing by Fiona Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 181-207)

Crowder, Diane Griffin: ‘Amazons and Mothers? Monique Wittig, Hélène Cixous and Theories of Women’s Writing’ (Contemporary Literature 24.2, Summer 1983 [Special issue: L’Écriture Féminine] , pp. 117-144)

—: ‘Une armée d’amantes: l’image de l’amazone dans l’œuvre de Monique Wittig’ (Vlasta 4, 1985, pp. 79-87)

Davis, James Douglas: Beautiful War: Uncommon Violence, Praxis, and Aesthetics in the Novels of Monique Wittig (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010)

Duffy, Jean H.: ‘Language and Childhood: L’Opoponax by Monique Wittig’ (Forum for Modern Language Studies 19.4, October 1983, pp. 288-300)

—: ‘Women and Language in Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig’ (Stanford French Review, Winter 1983, pp. 399-412)

—: ‘Monique Wittig’ in Beyond the Nouveau Roman: Essays on the Contemporary French Novel ed. by Michael Tilby (New York/Oxford: Berg, 1990, pp. 201-228)

—: ‘Jean Duffy rereads L’Opoponax by Monique Wittig’ (Revue critique de fixxion française/ Critical review of French Fixxion 8, 2014, pp. 156-173)

Ecarnot, Catherine: L'Écriture de Monique Wittig: à la couleur de Sappho (Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan, 2002)

Epps, Brad and Katz, Jonathan: ‘Monique Wittig’s Materialist Utopia and Radical Critique’ (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4, 2007, pp. 423-454)

Feole, Eva: ‘Le déchaînement littéraire: “Sphinx” d’Anne Garréta et “Le corps lesbien” de Monique Wittig’ in Homosexualités et fictions en France de 1981 à nos jours ed. by Éric Bordas and Owen Heathcote, (Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine/Critical Review of Contemporary French Fixxion [special issue] 12, 2016, pp. 110-119)

Hewitt, Leah D.: ‘Confusing the Genres: Autobiographical Parody and Utopia in Monique Wittig’s Across the Acheron’ in Autobiographical Tightropes by Leah D. Hewitt (Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990, pp. 127-157]

Jardine, Alice: ‘Thinking Wittig’s Differences: "Or, Failing That, Invent"’ (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4, 2007, pp. 455-466)

Lanser, Susan Sniader: ‘Full Circle: Les Guérillères’ in Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice by Susan Snaider Lanser (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1992, pp. 267-280

Lewis, Valerie Hannagan: ‘Warriors and Runaways: Monique Wittig’s Le Voyage sans fin’ (Theatre Research International 23.03, 1998, pp. 200-204)

Lindsay, Cecile: ‘Body/Language: French Feminist Utopias’ (The French Review 60.1, October 1986, pp. 46-55)

Marks, Elaine: ‘Lesbian Intertextuality’ in Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts, Critical Texts ed. by George Stambolian and Elaine Marks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 353-377)

Ostrovsky, Erika: A Constant Journey: The Fiction of Monique Wittig (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 1991)

Rosenfeld, Marthe: ‘The Linguistic Aspect of Sexual Conflict: Monique Wittig's Le Corps lesbien’ (Mosaic 17.2, 1984, pp. 235-242)

—: ‘Vers un langage de l’utopie amazonienne: "Le Corps lesbien" de Monique Wittig’ (Vlasta 4, 1985, pp. 55-62)

Scanlon, Julie: ‘"XX+ XX= XX": Monique Wittig's Reproduction of the Monstrous Lesbian’ (Paroles gelées 16.1, 1998, pp.73-96)

Shaktini, Namascar: ‘Displacing the Phallic Subject: Wittig’s Lesbian Writing’ (Signs 8.1, 1982, pp. 29-44)

—: ‘Le déplacement du sujet phallique: l’écriture lesbienne de Monique Wittig’ (Vlasta 4, 1985, pp. 65-77)

— (ed.): On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political, and Literary Essays (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005)

Silberman, Seth Clark: ‘"I have access to your glottis": The Fleshy Syntax, Ethical Irony, and Queer Intimacy of Monique Wittig’s Le Corps lesbien’ (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4, 2007, pp. 467-487)

Stamponini, Suzanna: ‘Un nom pour tout le monde: L’"Opoponax" de Monique Wittig’ (Vlasta  4, 1985, pp. 89-95).

Wenzel, Hélène Vivienne: ‘The Text as Body/Politics: An Appreciation of Monique Wittig’s Writings in Context’ (Feminist Studies 7.2, Summer 1981, pp. 264-287)

—: ‘Le discours radical de Monique Wittig’ (Vlasta 4, 1985, pp. 43-52)

Whatling, Clare: ‘Wittig’s Monsters: Stretching the Lesbian Reader’ (Textual Practice 11.2, 1997, pp. 237- 248)

Wiegman, Robyn: ‘Un-remembering Monique Wittig’ (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4, 2007, pp. 505-518)

Zerilli, Linda: ‘The Trojan Horse of Universalism: Language as a "War Machine" in the Writings of Monique Wittig’ (Social Text 25/26, 1990, pp. 146-170)


Compiled by Sandra Daroczi (Exeter)

 

Interviews

Deudon, Catherine: ‘Monique Wittig et les lesbiennes barbues (entretien)’ (Actuel 25, November 1977, pp. 12-14)

Devarrieux, Claire: ‘J’ai connu la guillotine’ (Libération¸ Thursday 17 June 1999; also available online at http://next.liberation.fr/livres/1999/06/17/j-ai-connu-la-guillotine_276051

Le Garrec, Evelyne: ‘Monique Wittig: Je crois aux amazones’ (Politique-Hebdo 163, 1973, p. 29)

Louppe, Laurence: ‘Entretien avec Monique Wittig’ (L’Art vivant 45, December 1973/January 1974, pp. 24-25) 

Rognon-Ecarnot, Cathérine: ‘Recontre avec Monique Wittig’ (Lesbia Magazine, December 1996, pp. 28-30)

Thibaut, Josy: ‘Entretien: Monique Wittig raconte…’ (ProChoix: La revue du droit de chosir 46, December 2008, pp. 64-6; also available online at http://www.prochoix.org/pdf/Prochoix.46.interieur.pdf


Compiled by Sandra Daroczi (Exeter)