Form and Format in Fiction: Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig

Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig is an otherworldly story of an apocalyptic war between men and women. Wittig writes in French, from a feminist perspective. In an attempt to subvert traditional ‘patriarchal’ forms of literature, Wittig uses a variety of interesting techniques to tell a different kind of story.

Structurally, it is difficult to call this work of fiction a novel in the traditional sense. There is no one character that the book follows. It could be argued that the book tells the story of “they” (humankind? womankind?) but there is not one personal main character. Occasionally, specific people are mentioned, but each is only mentioned for a few sentences before the writing reverts back to the more generalized story. Additionally, the book does not set up a linear narrative. Instead, Wittig writes Les Guérillères in a series of vignettes. These vignettes serve to give glimpses into the everyday life and the war of this possibly futuristic society. Some of the vignettes tell stories of specific people living in the society, some of them tell of the goddesses that the society worship, some tell of the collective history (which seems to point to a time much like present day) and some tell of specific points in the war between the sexes. It is not abundantly clear that the vignettes are even in a relatively chronological order, which raises some interesting questions. For example, is the seemingly utopian (all-female?) society at the beginning of the book the result of the war, or is it what creates the battle?

In terms of format, Wittig makes sure that this book looks different than other books from the get-go. The first thing the reader is confronted with in this book is a poem in all capital letters. As the book progresses, the vignettes are dispersed between lists of names which are also in all capital letters. The effect of these lists is like that of a war memorial, name after name of those lost in the fight. Less frequently, but perhaps more strikingly, the vignettes hold giant circles between them, whole pages on which the only thing that is written is a circle. There are quite a few vignettes that tell the significance of the circle, which is the symbol of the vulva. This importance of the symbolism of the female anatomy then comes up again and again in retellings of our society’s stories which are reworked to make the circle symbolism paramount.

The strength of this book, for me, is in this formatting. The ways in which Wittig subverts the reader’s expectations asks important questions. We know what the language and the literature of tradition looks like. But what does the language and the literature of the oppressed look like? Are there heroes or heroines? Does it undermine the traditional chronological order? Are symbols important enough to include? How do you tell the story of a group of people? Are there stories that are better told in non-traditional formats? What happens when these formats become traditional?

I can’t help but feel that something is lost in the translation of this book. There seems to be something very important happening in the pronouns being used and those pronouns leave the reader with a plethora of questions. Who are “they?” Who is included in this “they” and who is not? Are we as readers supposed to identify with what “they” say? Are we supposed to be critical of what “they” say? The answers to these questions make for very different readings of the book. If “they” are an inclusive group which tells the truth and speaks for all people, then we might take what they say at face value. However, if we question what “they” say (as we might when we say “some people say…”) then the society in this book might be read as a feminist dystopia, a matriarchal society that is ridden with the same problems as present society only with the roles reversed.

I think where this book falls short is in the heavy-handedness of the story itself. Perhaps I am idealistic, but I like to believe that it will not take an apocalyptic war to create an equal and free society. The combination of this war of mythic proportions and the unusual format come together in a way that feels pedantic. Though the book makes the reader think and ask questions, it also feels like it is leading the reader to specific thoughts and questions instead of allowing the reader to come to her own conclusions. This book feels like a hybrid between theory and literature, a theoretical discussion made material on the page.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

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Reading for Writers: “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Birth Write:

The birth of the author, the reader, and the text in Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Part manifesto, part poetry, part call to action, part theoretical treatise, part psychoanalysis, Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a philosophical essay that defies genre and convention – and rightly so, because this is exactly what Cixous is writing about.  Around the same time that Roland Barthes is theorizing about the death of the author, Cixous is trumpeting the birth of the author.  Is this backwards and old-fashioned of her?  Were these two theories so at odds as to be opposites?  No. While Barthes is approaching the subject as an either/or binary distinction in which the interpretation and agency of the reader necessitates the fall and death of the author, Cixous sees the same rise of the reader, though it is not at the expense of the author because for her their differances are not in opposition.  For Cixous, it is possible for the reader and the writer to be born within a text.

Cixous’s work is difficult to summarize.  It is a call to arms, or if you will, a call to pens for women, who she defines as in an “inevitable struggle against conventional man” (1943).  This definition of woman includes not only those with female bodies, but all those who are engaged in this struggle against the traditional hegemony. Throughout the work, she uses images of the female body and motherhood to explicate a new kind of writing, one which is not bound by the hierarchical structures that are imposed on language.  Instead, she advocates for writing with and through the body.  In writing in this way, those whose voices and bodies have been repressed by the dominant establishment may come into their own and begin to realize their selfhood.  “Write your self. Your body must be heard” (1946), Cixous urges her readers.  She uses the biological functions of the female body to pinpoint that which is dictated by the laws of nature and that which is governed by culture.  Biologically, woman can think, write and speak.  It is the phallocentric culture which will not allow her to do these things.

But The Laugh of the Medusa” is more than a feminist manifesto.  It also goes into great depth about the theory of language and writing.  She calls for the birth of the author through the text: “Write! and your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood” (1956).  Cixous seeks to encourage those whose voices have been repressed to take back their words and their bodies through writing, allowing them to come fully into being. Unlike the rigid, structured language of Saussure and Lacan, the language of woman is not beholden to the rules of the signifier and the signified.  The language of woman is more fluid and immediate.  The distinctions of the symbolic order, the imaginary order, and the Real do not hold in this ecriture: “We are ourselves sea, sand, coral, seaweed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children waves… More or less wavily sea, earth, sky… We know how to speak them all” (1956) Cixous’s vision of ecriture feminine is a writing that surpasses the traditional binary opposition of I and Not-I, but instead leaves room for connection with the multitudes of Other.  Feminine writing is “a process of different subjects knowing one another and beginning one another anew… a multiple and inexhaustible course with millions of encounters and transformations of the same into the other and the in-between” (1948).  It is not a language based on the separation of parts and the creation of boundaries but instead tries to encompass the whole. Woman “has never ceased to hear the fore-language. She lets the other language speak… Her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.” (1955)

Cixous seems to divert from many of her contemporaries by upholding the role of the author in a text. However, this is because ecriture feminine is not founded on the same assumptions as traditional writing.  Roland Barthes writes “Death of the Author” in critique of the writer as one who seeks to control and own his text.  Unlike Barthes, Cixous does not assume that the author is one who has had access to the modes of writing, speaking, and dissemination.  Cixous’s writer has a newfound voice and is creating her self through her writing. She does not fit the mold of the privileged “conventional man” and therefore must give wings to her own ways of meaning-making.  She has been silenced by the traditional conventions of writing and language as a form of self-expression.  Indeed, she has not had the opportunity for self at all. This is why Cixous sees writing as an empowering act for the writer.  The writers Cixous is writing to and of have agency precisely because they haven’t had it before.  These woman writers are engaging in revolutionary acts through writing.  Cixous writes, “We are at the beginning of a new history, or rather of a process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another” (1955).  This writer must give birth to her writing because it is the only way that this multiplicity of voices and histories can come into being.  Cixous maintains that writing is an act of empowerment for the author.  She calls on woman to “Write! and your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood” (1955).  Here the author and the text come into being together.  This is not as far from Barthes’ argument as it would at first seem.  He writes, “the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text” (1324).  Cixous’s writer takes the same relationship with her text, coming into being as she is writing it.

For Barthes, the writer is in opposition to the reader and therefore must die so that the reader and text may be free.  He maintains that the author tries to dominate and restrict readings of his work and therefore must be separated from it.  However, the distinction between Barthes’ author and Cixous’s woman as writer is that woman is giving. The woman as writer is not trying to restrain or constrict the writing the way that Barthes imagines the traditional writing to do. Instead of being the traditional “father” of the work, who knows and restricts all its interpretations and intentions, Cixous’s writers are different: “They observe, they approach, they try to see the other woman, the child, the lover – not to strengthen their own narcissism or verify the solidity or weakness of the master, but to make love better, to invent” (1958).  Cixous envisions a writer who is not stingy with the text or its meaning in relation to the reader, but instead is moved to give.  Of course, the writer is present in the text, but because Cixous and woman writers are not working within a system of binary oppositions in which they see writer and not-writer, they are free to allow the writer to exist alongside the reader and the text.  When the world is not divided into I and Other, all these things can come to fruition together.  The act of writing not only gives voice to the writer, but also to the readers whose voices have also been stifled.  In this way, the author gives birth not only to herself but also to the text and the reader.

There are possible problems with Cixous’s text.  For one, its portrayal of woman in some ways is very one-dimensional, nearly mythological.  She speaks of the experience of women as if all feminine experiences are the same.  However, upon closer examination, Cixous mitigates these concerns at the outset of the essay.  She writes that there is “no general woman, no one typical woman” (1943).  She writes of the individual and multiple variations of woman’s experience.

When she speaks of woman in terms of body, she seems to be upholding traditional gender stereotypes of a binary, biological gender system.  However, in looking more closely, we can see that Cixous is aware of this when she defines woman as in conflict with “conventional man” and states that there is an “infinite richness of individual constitutions” which make up woman’s experience.  She asserts that “each body distributes in its own special way, without model or norm, the nonfinite and changing totality of its desires” (1957).  These passages are inclusive, calling all of the individuals who do not conform to society’s idea of “conventional man” to speak out.

One may see this style of writing and this essay as nonlogical, proof that women cannot write and theorize.  However, Cixous must write in this way in order to break free of the constraints of traditional writing.  There are inconsistencies and places where the essay are unclear, but these only serve to give Cixous’s writer an example, a possible way to break out of the conventions of language so that she might give herself voice.

The implications of this essay for literary theory are manifold.  For one, it is an encouragement for female writers.  It opens the door for a variety of voices, ways of making meaning, and interpretations.  It calls on us, as readers, writers, and citizens, to abandon the old system of binary oppositions, to understand that there are more useful interpretations of the world than A and not-A.  It allows for more room to play with language, embracing nontraditional grammatical forms.  It also calls on us as readers and writers to give.  Instead of holding on to our interpretations and view points as the only right way, we can become Cixous’s woman writer and act with “a love that rejoices in the exchange and that multiplies” (1959).

This essay is also calling on the literary establishment to understand the cultural and societal implications of writing.  Cixous writes that we “confuse the biological with the cultural” (1942), that we are upholding as natural a hierarchy which is completely constructed by society.  Cixous’s use of the body here represents, in part, a call to understand what is “natural” and what is imposed by tradition.  Her use of the body in this essay is on one hand to be taken literally, but functions even better as a metaphor.  Throughout the essay, Cixous uses metaphor and figurative language to make her points and add weight to her arguments.  She is direct about doing this: “The mother, too, is a metaphor” (1948). The body represents the self and the text of the person: “Text: my body” (1948).  She is not only talking about the biological flesh of the writer, but the writer’s very self.  It is only in this context, separate from the control of the imaginary and symbolic orders, that those whose voices have been marginalized can begin to write themselves.  Writing is a historical act.  It creates history and we, as writers and readers, must be cognizant of the history we are creating.  Cixous is asking us if we want to live in a world controlled by the master-slave dialectic, where the author must die so that the reader and the text may live.  Perhaps instead we can live in a world where the author, the reader, and the text may all be born through the act of writing.

Works Cited[1]

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and

Criticism, Second Edition. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. New York: W.W. Norton and

 Company, 2010. 1938-1959. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and

Criticism, Second Edition. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. New York: W.W. Norton and

 Company, 2010. 1322-1326. Print.


[1] I understand that it is traditional MLA Format to alphabetize the works cited page by author’s last name, however, I feel that “Laugh of the Medusa” is so much more important to this critique that I have chosen to put it first.  Also, it’s my tiny nod to breaking out of the constraints of the literary establishment.