A Quill Pen

Les Guérillères

("The Warrior Women")

by Monique Wittig
translated by David Le Vay

April 2005 book review (2 of 3)
by Collie Collier

Wittig's book, quite frankly, puzzles me -- or perhaps it's simply the hype which I find misplaced. I picked it up because I read it was, in 1969, one of the first appropriations of the Amazonian utopia legend by the lesbian movement, and is "set within a brilliant deconstruction of male cultural discourse." That sounded promisingly intellectually challenging. In retrospect, though, I'm not sure it accomplished either of those goals.

The book starts with a page of free-form poetry (perhaps it rhymes in the original French?) all in capital letters. Due to my internet experience this reminded me uncomfortably of being shouted at, and was a somewhat disconcerting beginning. However, upon careful reading I found the imagery interestingly mythic and sensuously colorful, and the circle symbol on the next page was easily recognizable -- so I carried on.

The book continues (practically without break) with short paragraphs of prose, usually two or maybe three per page, often charmingly free of punctuation. Again, the imagery is colorfully evocative, with words frequently running together like juice running freely, squeezed from fresh fruit. Scents, textures, sounds -- all are appealed to in these short, sometimes bewildering, sometimes interestingly run-together bits of prose.

There are enough of these prose paragraphs, all with little enough connection to each other, that it's very easy (the first time through the book) to have your eyes start to glaze over -- a constant diet of pretty nonsense isn't very filling, at least for me.

To be fair, though, there were bits from two verses which really sang to me. They helped me both snap out of the boredom, and (I hope) really catch the author's meaning. Here's one of them:

... There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember. ...

You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.

The concept of freedom and joy for all is one which appeals to me, and I understand the need for slaves of cultural constraints (both female and male) to remember what it was like to be in that condition. I also strongly agree with the need to write one's own background -- as the saying goes, 'history is written by the winners.'

The roll call of legend

Interspersed infrequently with these are single pages, always on the right hand side of the book, which contain nothing more than a paragraph of women's names -- again, all in capital letters. The names themselves are lovely: Isadora, Jezebel, Odile, Qi-Ji, Zubaïda, Giselle, Lysistrata, Roxana, Shadtar, Vijaya, Bathsheba, Lu-Hu, Bhatikarika, and many, many more.

While some of the names were new to me, on the whole they seemed to span a great many cultures. I recognized many of them as the protagonist heroines or love-interest heroines of various mythical stories, in which their tragic deaths or losses figure prominently.

These names seemed to be arranged like the serried ranks of those fallen in glorious battle and recited or chanted to keep their memories and sacrifices alive. I could understand and appreciate that. I could also appreciate the (maybe two or three more) instances of the appearance, alone on a single page, of the female circle symbol.

Words and symbols

However, the actual content of the prose poetry I found somewhat bemusing. The story, if it can be called that, starts in the middle of no discernable where or when, and rambles through a sort of Arcadian, mostly agricultural, all-female experience. Dancing, singing, relaxed nudity, unashamed passion; all are reclaimed by the women in these prose narratives. Repeatedly, their personal natures are revealed to be as unbound and naturally flowing as their hair -- a strong mythic symbol in and of itself, of course.

Female genitalia are referred to frequently and unashamedly in these prose poems as well: via organic metaphor, in clear analytic descriptions, in song and dance and legend, with innocently curious sensory interest. Female sun and war goddesses are named, invoked, and worshipped by the women in these prose tales as well, and it's clear the appreciation of the deities, as of the genitalia, is based in a calm interest in learning; in a lack of shame, fear, or bravado.

Also interesting is the reference to "feminaries," books of mythic learning, which emblemize the lack of a female-negating language amongst these women. They tell tales where women may feel emotion, pain, learning, or power, but there's no hint of these women being at all aware of their 'traditionally subservient role' in regards to men... at least initially.

In fact, no male references are made whatsoever until perhaps halfway or two thirds through the book (although after that they're mentioned repeatedly), and if my memory serves me well, that is just a passing reference to a 'he' who wrote something which revealed a lack of understanding of women. The reading women amusingly don't understand the female reference to which the 'he' alludes to either.

Curiously, later in the book there's clearly pre-existing knowledge of this classically dysfunctional imbalanced power relationship between the sexes, since women are called on to fight against a language and a mode of living which degrades them -- that being seen as a cultural artifact of male-dominated culture.

These exhortations grow stronger and more passionate, with clear and compelling comparisons being drawn between racism, sexism, and slavery. Women are encouraged in both mythopoetic metaphor and in outright clarion calls to fight these injustices without let-up. The ultimate victory will be the return of freedom, of course, but death is far preferable to a physically, mentally, and language-shackled life as a slave.

Oppression & technology

The example above is not the only instance of the co-existence of both a lack of, and a distinct awareness of, knowledge regarding a particular object or subject. For example, there's also how technology is treated in these prose tales.

Initially there's the occasional reference to commonplace technology, although sometimes the tools described are fanciful extrapolations on current reality. Sometimes these tech and tools work just fine, and we have scenes of marketplaces, riverside ports, decorative toys, and some dwelling places... but other times the tools make mistakes which are simply acknowledged and ignored, or indifferently worked around.

Later, however, trades or industrial artifacts are revealed as something the women collect and burn, celebrating their destruction as a metaphorical annihilation of the cultures of men. Puzzlingly (at least in regards to the knowledge/ lack of knowledge/ destruction of technical tools), there is later an appearance of clearly industrially produced weaponry, just in time for the war against the men.

Some of the weapons are science fictional in nature, as are some of the actions of the warring women. Other times the women are referred to as mythic or legendary warriors defeating their dreadful (but never demonic) foes. On occasion the women advance as phalanxes of fierce and determined kite flyers across a grassy field, or bow-armed cavalry holding sheer mountainous passes.

These obviously hard-fought wars, however, seem to have curiously little consequence, at least in terms of any real blood, death, or destruction. There are occasional references to bodies or bleeding wounds, but it's almost absently described, practically in passing. Indeed, some of the battles appear to be fought and won by the women entirely through nothing more than aggressive dance and chanting!

It's noteworthy the women are careful not to battle men who aren't their enemies, and they mourn the fallen men as they bury them. There are no references to dark Kali dancing in the entrails of those fallen to her power -- the book's deific references are much tidier, and in a way much less difficult or complex. The deities of choice here are all bright sun beings, or fierce warrior women who do not deign to stoop to the degrading tactics of their often confused or wretched and pitiably insecure male enemies.

Young men: child-like, or spoils of war?

Later verses reveal the "young men" happily rejoicing with the women post-battle, helping them in the solemn clean up and burial of the dead, entertaining and being romanced at parties, and so on. This would appear to imply the enemy is not men in general -- just older men.

I was somewhat uncomfortable with this. Did the author mean to say only young men are mentally flexible enough to join in the bright, passionate correctness of the victorious women? Was she implying all male culture had no value or wisdom to learn from it? Did she think wrinkled old women are beautiful, but wrinkled old men are just ugly?

Perhaps she simply meant young men are more easily driven by their gonads, or that men are too insipid to provide the united front the women provided in battle. I don't know... but I hope all these uncomfortable thoughts are wrong.

The book concludes with one last all-caps, free-form poem, which appears to sternly exhort violence against current understanding and meaning, and to re-write symbol and act in overthrow. Then, abruptly, the very last prose paragraph shifts pronoun tense from 'they' to 'we,' with 'we' women celebrating/mourning the fallen now the war is finally over.

The myth of the Trickster

The coexistent knowledge/lack of knowledge on several subjects in this book reminded me oddly of another mythic figure: Loki. In the ancient Norse myths he is a sort of helpful but hapless trickster, often caught and punished for his thoughtless pranks -- and at the same time, in other stories, he is a malicious and malevolent agent for the destruction of all the worlds.

Until the tale of the Flyting of Loki, he spends far more time trying to be helpful to the big bruisers of Norse myth, and appreciated for his smarts, than he does working for wicked ends. He's just a bit careless sometimes, acting before he thinks -- and the consequences keep (sometimes literally) biting him in the end.

There are those who refer to the physically weak but clever tricksters as eternal sacrifices to brawny ignorance. If that is the case, it gives a fascinating perspective on Wittig's story. Does she present the women as the trickster equivalent, trying to be helpful and liked at the same time as they are thoughtlessly disdained and scorned -- until, driven by fury, they turn to attack and destroy that ignorance which they used to constantly fruitlessly attempt to appease?


I have read there are those who feel logic and rationality is a patriarchist tool. I do not agree; to state such is to generalize insultingly about how women -- and men -- are capable of thinking. Just as strongly, I feel there is a place for myth, art, mystery, and poetry in our lives, and these can speak on a different intellectual or emotional level than logic or spoken/written language. Indeed, in some cases I know various arts (such as music, for example) can speak far more powerfully, deeply, and lastingly than simple speech.

That being said, I personally differentiate between real myth and modern fairy tale. A true myth speaks to something deep within us, exploring the fearsome and beautiful potential within us all. Glories won are commensurate with the personal sacrifices of mythic heroines.

Unfortunately I didn't get a really mythic feel from this book. There were many references to myth, true, and some sensual/dreamy prose poetry, which is a classic form for some myths. However, the book read more like a modern fairy tale to me; real sacrifice appeared to be almost superfluous to the story. The women won the war, true, but it felt rather deux et machina; of it being a foregone conclusion and we all lived happily ever after the end isn't that nice.

With no real sacrifice, how can there be any true victory? I think this is why the flow and the ending of the story felt hollow and artsy to me. I believe it is significant that the two verses which really sang to me were both descriptions of the conflict -- not of its conclusion.

In effect, those two verses were where the author wrote Truth as she knew it, and that's why those verses shone. Unfortunately, since we've not yet seen the end of this conflict, and she had to describe that 'victory' metaphorically, she couldn't write a truth for that -- it hasn't happened yet.

Here's the second of the prose paragraphs which particularly struck me -- it spoke clearly to me amidst the great waves of poetically pretty confusions. I've broken it into three chunks for easier reading, although originally it was one unremitting mass of text:

The women say, the men have kept you at a distance, they have supported you, they have put you on a pedestal, constructed with an essential difference. They say, men in their way have adored you like a goddess or else burned you at their stakes or else relegated you to their service in their back-yards. They say, so doing they have always in their speech dragged you in the dirt. They say, in speaking they have possessed violated taken subdued humiliated you to their hearts' content.

They say, oddly enough what they have exalted in their words as an essential difference is a biological variation. They say, they have described you as they described the races they called inferior. They say, yes, these are the same domineering oppressors, the same masters who have said that negroes and women do not have a heart spleen liver in the same place as their own, that difference of sex difference of colour signify inferiority, their own right to domination and appropriation.

They say, yes, these are the same domineering oppressors who have written of negroes and women that they are universally cheats hypocrites tricksters liars shallow greedy faint-hearted, that their thinking is intuitive and illogical, that nature is what speaks most loudly in them, et cetera. They say, yes, these are the same domineering oppressors who sleep crouched over their money-bags to protect their wealth and who tremble with fear when night comes.

Strong, poetic, even compelling words -- but not new ones, I think. Overall I found myself wondering where exactly this theoretically brilliant writing had so deconstructed male discourse. What male discourse? I didn't see any. Mythopoetic gibberish, however lovely, isn't sufficient to claim male cultural discourse has been deconstructed, refuted, or even just obliterated.

Yes, there were two compellingly evocative verses for me... but much of the rest was attractive but incomprehensible in terms of consistent storytelling, or cultural gender deconstruction -- whether male, female, or completely postmodern.

That being said, I can't help but wonder if I'm missing something integral to this 'story' due to it being created (and perhaps based) in another culture's point of view. The individual phrases chosen are often lovely and evocative; there were two paragraphs which spoke poignantly indeed to me. Overall, however, I didn't find the book brilliant or revelatory. It was beautiful writing, true, but was it unique or new or even deconstructive? I did not find it so.

In closing

Les Guérillères is a slim volume and a quick read. I admit, the first time through I found myself glazing over a bit at the lack of coherency or consistency. I definitely enjoyed it more the second time through, when I already knew it made no clear sense and I would have to either appreciate the lovely prose poems for themselves, or get nothing much at all from it.

If you don't like free-form prose poetry, you're not a feminist, or you're not familiar with language as a medium of cultural training and conformance, then I fear you may not get much from the book at all, and I wouldn't recommend it. If you like sensually poetic prose wordplay, cross-cultural mythic references, or you understand culture as the basis for gender role creation and enforcement, then I'd recommend the book -- but guardedly.

You probably won't get any startling new concepts, although you may find some pretty re-packaging of already well-known ideas. Read it more than once... I think it grows on you slowly.

Reader Comments

04.15.04: Ian's thoughts

I admit I have a hard time with this stuff. I can't read monster chunks of synonyms (eg. the lines like 'possessed violated taken subdued humiliated'), the total lack of formatting, or apropos-of-nothing lists of names (that again break any kind of formatting) without finding it way too pretentious to take seriously, away and apart from the subject matter itself.

I'd say the same thing about any work, feminist or otherwise, although a lot of women's studies books seem to just grab their symbology and run the hell off with it. And then run back and beat you around the head with it. Like... the page with nothing on it but a circle. Yes, I understand this book is about women. You didn't need to smash me in the face with your vagina.