(“The Warrior Women”)
by Monique Wittig
translated by David Le Vay
(first reviewed April 2005)
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.