Any important literary work is like the Trojan Horse at the time it is produced. Any work with a new form operates as a war machine, because its design and its goal is to pulverize the old forms and formal conventions. It is always produced in hostile territory. And the stranger it appears, nonconforming, unassimilable, the longer it will take for the Trojan Horse to be accepted.—Monique Wittig, “The Trojan Horse”
What is war, really? And why are we in it? Why has it become the condition of our lives—even when we think we can’t smell, taste, or touch it? Even when we think it’s thousands of miles away? Even though we’ve been encouraged in the erroneous supposition that, just because we’re women, it’s somehow an optional experience for us: not something we would necessarily have to declare ourselves in relation to, not even in official “wartime”?
In the midst of life, we are in death. On streets that appear peaceful, with crime rates officially dropping, we’re up to our necks in the activities whose end result is war. Our “peace” is that in the name of which the lives of others have been filled with blood and terror. Our “productivity” is production for slaughter. As Tom Engelhardt observed in a recent post on his very useful Web site (Tomdispatch.com), the recent outcry over proposed base closing within the U.S. just shows how integral the war machine is to the fabric of daily life in every part of this country.
I’ve been thinking about women and war again, as the close of the regular academic year has given me more time to follow the news and participate in my neighborhood peace and justice group’s anti-recruitment project in local high schools. At the invitation of teachers, we go in to show an excellent anti-recruitment video, “Military Myths,” produced by Paper Tiger Television and the Roots youth program of War Resisters League; we then facilitate discussion about the implications of military service. Last night, at a citywide meeting to plan a fall anti-recruitment campaign (attended, encouragingly, by over 30 participants from a wide range of groups), I ran into an old comrade from the Women’s Pentagon Action, all those years ago (25, to be exact—the first of our feminist anti-militarist demonstrations at the Pentagon took place in 1980, only a few weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected President the first time). So much anti-militarist feminist history flashed before my eyes, in particular the tempting but ill-considered notion that women are “natural” peacemakers.
We women have always been integral to war: sometimes as fighters, more often as support staff: cooks, camp followers, designated mourners. Wives and sweethearts, after all, are supposed to be the ones on whose behalf the “good war” is fought, and they are often the ones who psych their significant others up for the ordeal (“Return with your shield—or on it!”). Wives and sweethearts and single moms in need of a job are also, increasingly who’s doing the active warring; as savvy media watchers have noted, it’s rather remarkable that the two iconic stories of the Iraq invasion and occupation—the media-generated soap opera scripts through which so much of the American public has been invited to imagine what we’re doing “over there”—have been those of Jessica Lynch (the supposedly “heroic” private whose “rescue” was staged as a photo op for embedded journalists) and Lyndie England (head dominatrix at Abu Ghraib).
Even when it goes against our own best conscious judgment, gender roles may dictate that loyalty ought to squelch criticism. When the New York Times Magazine recently ran a piece about women with sons serving in Iraq (as best I can recall, women with daughters there were not mentioned), one activist mother had decided to suppress her personal opposition to the war out of fear of dishonoring her son’s choice, even though she clearly thought it wrongheaded (as well as being properly terrified that it would get him killed).
So women are not natural innocents; we are not outside or above the fray. And yet…in the main, we’ve been differently positioned, a placement that potentially can serve as a powerful vantage point from which to recognize and criticize folly and complicity. It matters that we usually haven’t been—either in fact or imagination—the subject of combat, though we have incessantly been its object, its enabler, its beneficiary, its “collateral damage.”
But what exactly is this difference? How might it be named?
The other day I received, snail mailed from Korea, a lovely essay by Robert Hass entitled “The Idea of Perpetual Peace”; it had been delivered at the 2nd Seoul International Forum for Literature (thanks so much, Ian—I was very touched to get this, and loved reading it). Hass’s text reflects on the masculinist celebration of warfare as foundational warfare to traditions of narrative, not just in “the West” but the world over:
We do not know, in the first place, how old literature is, in the sense of song-making and story-telling. We get our first glimpse of it at the horizon of literacy, which even in the most precocious cultures occurred only two to three thousand years ago—and the record in all of those cultures is that story-telling, singing, and myth-making begins with some form of the glorification of a masculine warrior ethos….It is there in the Illiad and the Odyssey, in the apotheosis of the warrior Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, in Beowulf and the Niebelungen tales, and in the countless Chinese and Japanese tales of noble warriors and self-immolating retainers.
I feel rather stupid admitting that, despite my extensive reading in both feminist literary criticism and feminist anti-militarist thought, I’ve never encountered quite such a stark and striking way of putting the matter before: as a “woman writer,” I am excluded from the beginning and by definition—not just from “the word,” “the symbolic” (the Lacanians can go on about this all they want; I have never felt excluded from the word, never really experienced on a gut level this sense of disenfranchisement; on the contrary, language was always what seemed mine when other parts of the world did not)—but from the foundations of narrative.
(And yet, a crabby skeptic inside me insists—persuasive and dramatic as Hass’s case may appear, isn’t he assuming a bit too much? Just because the written record hasn’t come down to us, who says that other kinds of stories weren’t being told and didn’t demand just as much proficiency in the telling? Wouldn’t there have been nonheroic ballads and lullabies, elaborated gossip, ghost stories—all sorts of ephemeral forms that ended up in the compost heaps and kitchen middens of world literature? Why toss out “women’s forms,” why assume the nonexistence of unheroic vernacular traditions simply because they failed to make it into the warrior-canon that seems to have reigned supreme at the “horizon of literacy”?)
Just before receiving the Hass piece, I’d been rereading Monique Wittig’s 1969 novel Les Guérillères, one of those works I greedily inhaled at the time I first encountered it (probably the mid-1970’s), deeply enough to affect significantly my own writerly imagination, yet probably without understanding a good deal that seems apparent to me now. (For instance, I can now see the echo of Lacan’s ideas, so influential with French feminists; these are apparent in Wittig’s stunning effort to think the vagina as primary, a potential foundation for a symbolic system as the penis-become-phallus is in Lacan’s account. In the mid-70’s, I doubt I’d heard of Lacan.)
What thrills me when I begin this novel is the sense it projects—via both its form and its content–that the new world has already been born, that I’ve entered a radically new space of narrative (even though it will soon become clear that the “revolution” isn’t over, has only begun). The aesthetically pleasurable shock is already there in the graphic surprise of the first lines, laid out in capital letters, apparently a sort of invocation (“GOLDEN SPACES LACUNAE/THE GREEN DESERTS ARE SEEN/THEY DREAM AND SPEAK OF THEM/THE IMMOBILE BIRDS OF JET….” [n.p.]); followed by a great black-outlined circle that takes up an entire page (the genital symbol that will preoccupy the text [n.p.]); followed in turn by short prose blocks describing collective action: “When it rains the women stay in the summer-house” (9) and so forth. [Note: all page references are to the Avon Books edition, translated by David LeVay.] In a thoughtful on-line essay by l. timmel duchamp, at www.fantasticmetropolis.com, I learned that this habitual appearance of the plural noun “women” is an unfortunate if unavoidable effect of translation. Witting herself uses the plural feminine pronoun “elles”; elsewhere, she famously wrote that the entity “woman” is nothing other than an object of exchange produced by patriarchy, and therefore does not exist outside it.
Much of the imagery at the beginning of the novel, before the theme of anti-masculinist combat emerges, feels freed and freeing to me, in the way that a young girl is sometimes free in her play before she runs up against the more stringent gender constraints that will surround her in adolescents—but (and this is crucial to my imagination’s unreserved embrace of the story)—the impression is far from edenic; already there are intimations of mischief, cruelty, death.) A hypnotic effect is achieved by the use of blocks of women’s names—suggestive of many different national backgrounds, some mythic or historic–to punctuate the brief intervals of collective narrative, from which a named woman’s briefly described deeds emerge from time to time like the glimpse of a vivid face in a crowd. Wittig’s use of the circle as a genital symbol is witty, relentless, and utterly radical; I doubt very much that anything in The Vagina Monologues can compare with this poetic projection of female anatomy as not only primary but mythic:
The women say that they expose their genitals so that the sun may be reflected therein as in a mirror. They say that they retain its brilliance. They say that the pubic hair is like a spider’s web that captures the rays. They are seen running with great strides. They are all illuminated at their centre, starting from the pubes the hooded clitorides the folded double labia. The glare they shed when they stand still and turn to face one makes the eye turn elsewhere unable to stand the sight. (19)
Later, apparently recognizing the danger that their own genitals might come to occupy a place of primacy in a system analogous to the one they strove to overthrow, “elles” back away from even this source of power: “They say that they must now stop exalting the vulva. They say that they must break the last bond that binds them to a dead culture. They say that any symbol that exalts the fragmented body is transient, must disappear” (72). “They say, if I take over the world, let it be to dispossess myself of it immediately, let it be to forge new links between myself and the world” (107).
Though this notion is nothing if not utopian, Wittig was too serious to avoid engaging with a vision of the revolutionary violence without at least a dollop of which it seems impossible to believe that age-old injustice and inequality might be dislodged. In the second half of the book, we witness a form of warfare that is simultaneously lethal and erotic. “Some laugh out loud and manifest their aggressiveness by thrusting their bare breasts forward brutally” (100). “Elles” kill, but without attachment to killing; because their commitment is to pure “overthrow,” rather than to imposing a new hierarchy, one gets the impression that they will avoid the familiar addiction to violent conflict that Hass argues has so much to do with our most honored narrative traditions.
I love it that Wittig doesn’t take the easy and false road of imagining a female exemption from violence (unlike, for instance, Sally Miller Gearhart’s once-popular and in my view simple-minded lesbian feminist utopia The Wanderground). Still, I can’t help but wonder what exactly it means to ground a vision of this utterly, unimaginably new world in the image of the woman warrior (a question that Maxine Hong Kingston has admitted asking herself at the point when she decided to write a “book of peace” and looked back on her own use of the female warrior image as an emancipatory emblem). Is Wittig’s dazzling “Trojan Horse” of form a less effective means of overthrow—a less truly new approach—because, in the end, it only tells another story of warfare?
The magic of Wittig’s book, for me, is that “the war is over” at the end functions rather like “and they lived happily ever after” in fairytales; still caught up in the enchantment of the narrative, the audience neglects to inquire how the blissful couple will manage to maintain perfect domestic tranquility—or, in this case, how “the women” will go about forging “new links” with the world while avoiding the construction of a new symbolic order in which the vagina (or some other emblem of dualism) becomes the basis for new oppression. The experience of reading such a beautiful, formally surprising work leaves me feeling astonished and delighted, in such a woozy state of suspended disbelief that I readily embrace the dubious notion of waging a gender war to end all wars.
Nice work if you can get it.
6/14/05: Arnold Schwarzenegger has come forth in Earth’s defense. “Just over a week ago, Mr. Schwarzenegger pledged to slow, stop and ultimately reverse California’s greenhouse gas emissions by requiring big improvements in automobile efficiency and pushing for energy sources other than fossil fuels. ‘The debate is over,’ the governor said. ‘We know the science, we see the threat, and we know the time for action is now.’”—New York Times editorial, “Feeling the Heat,” A22.