Dispatch from the Trenches: Dismemberment, Cremation, and Embalming in Wittig's Les Guerilleres

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Dispatch From The Trenches: Dismemberment, Cremation, and Embalming in Wittig's Les Guerilleres

We have declared war on the canon, but where do we find our battle plan? The syllabus has been updated any number of times; year by year the women's names are edging out the hallowed males in every introductory course; the answer to the perennial "But what can be left out?" turns out to be "Anything." But at some point or other curriculum integration brings you to the inescapable conclusion: the women don't fit. All the neat patterns and movements we learned in graduate school, all the major figures, works, and dates we feel guilty if we aren't teaching -- it all forms a seamless whole; it was made that way.

There isn't any room for the women, but we put them in anyway. Then we have to come up with a new kind of exam, because the old patterns don't contain them. We have to explain to the class that this particular woman wrote at the same time as this movement was taking place, but she wasn't really part of the movement. Our students ask us if this is because women work outside of movements. We don't want to say yes. "Look at it this way," we say. "If you had a picture with a lot of red in it and a lot of green, and if you ignored the green, you could say it was a red picture. Is the solution to print all the green parts separately, to prove that they're there?" Then we dig into the text again, looking for the answer in metaphors.

Battle imagery is not my favorite idiom, but I am hard put to find any other to express my frustrations at trying to put together a syllabus that really teaches literature. Simply sprinkling a few women writers into the syllabus doesn't work, as we have seen. I turned to Monique Wittig, to a novel about the war between the sexes, which she chronicles in true epic style. Together with my class, I read it as a primer for revolution. We hoped that this novel, a feminist handbook, would help us find our way through male determined categories (quick, how many female French Romantic poets can you name?) to a picture of French literature which, if not truer would at least appease our outraged sense of exclusion.

What we saw in Les Guerilleres was a whole lot of dead bodies. This is not surprising in a novel about war, however imaginary and even figurative that war may be. The field is littered with mangled and decaying corpses from two armies, both in the final battle scene and throughout the earlier parts of the novel. A goodly amount of space is devoted to the subsequent treatment of the cadavers, as if this treatment were in no way less significant than -- might in fact be related to -- the outcome of the battles. This emphasis on dismemberment puts one in mind of The Lesbian Body, a celebration in brutal detail of discrete and (to the erotic imagination) edible parts of the body. Some of the bodies are embalmed, preserved for posterity.

Without hesitation we posit dead bodies as books. Then one student offers, "But when we read them, they come alive."

"Well then, what happens when we cut them up?"

The cutting up of the body is a form of textual analysis. In The Lesbian Body textual analysis. In The Lesbian Body dismemberment is one of the metaphors for love-making: entry into the lover's body, cannibalism, and fragmentation of the lover's limbs are all ways of assimilating the lover and denying her otherness. The chilling scene in Les Guerilleres which describes wolves devouring female corpses, rushing from one cut-up body to the next, panting, eyes gleaming in the dusk, may also be taken as a sexual metaphor, but this metaphor rests on heterosexual exploitation rather than assimilation.

In this scene of violence the wolves are consumed not by hunger, for they leave the corpses half-eaten, but by lust. In commenting on the story, one of the fictional female listeners says, "To hell with stories of wolves, now if it had had to do with rats, yes if only they had been rats" (36). …