An exhibit at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library features the papers of Monique Wittig, a radical French author and feminist thinker.
The exhibit, titled “Drafting Monique Wittig,” traces Wittig’s life and work. Wittig has authored several influential texts such as “L’Opoponax,” “Les Guérillères,” “The Straight Mind” and “Le Corps lesbien” that touch upon themes of language, sexuality and female identity. She also taught French literature and courses related to her own work at the University of Arizona.
Mariah Kreutter ’20 made the exhibit’s introductory video about the news.
“The archives are about everything we have documented about her career, her life,” Kreutter said. “You get the sense of her not just as a writer, but as a human being and that’s always fascinating.”
Timothy Young, curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke, was involved in the acquisition of Wittig’s papers. Young said that Wittig’s papers came to the Beinecke in 2014, after around 10 years of discussions and negotiations with Wittig’s partner, Sande Zeig.
Assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies of the French department Morgane Cadieu, who curated the show, said she has always been interested in Wittig’s works. When Cadieu arrived at Yale in 2014, she wanted to “valorize” these archives of Wittig’s work, she said. She proposed a two-day conference and accompanying exhibit to Young. Cadieu subsequently organized the exhibit and conference with Annabel Kim, an assistant professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard.
The two-day conference, which took place on Oct. 10 and 11, was organized by the French department and the Beinecke. It hosted about 20 scholars from the United States and European countries as well as Yale faculty and students. During the conference, various scholars presented papers on Wittig.
According to Young, the panels covered a broad range of topics such as Wittig’s early works and the problem of translation.
The Beinecke exhibit features Wittig’s work from the mid-1970s onward. The papers on view include her teaching notes from the University of Arizona, letters written by admirers, drafts, unpublished documents and correspondence between Wittig and her editors.
Among the works featured are letters from Mary McCarthy and Marguerite Duras, a copy of “Les Guérillères” and “Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes” and files covering her film, “The Girl,” which she created with Zeig.
According to Cadieu, the show includes a wide range of Wittig’s work to “change the narrative a bit.”
Cadieu noted that in the United States, Wittig is often known through Judith Butler, the author of seminal feminist theory text “Gender Trouble.” As a result, one of the aims of the exhibit is to isolate Wittig’s personage and influences from existing accounts of her.
“Wittig is often known either as a radical feminist lesbian thinker or an experimental writer,” Cadieu said. “People have a tendency to forget that both aspects exist together.”
Cadieu said that while going through the 30 boxes that contained Wittig’s archives, she was not looking for anything in particular. She approached the works with an open perspective, and allowed one item to lead her to another.
“I didn’t want to impose a narrative on her life, but trigger discussion on its various aspects,” Cadieu said.
Yet Cadieu attempted to illuminate the materiality of the texts through her selections. Because Wittig was a believer of the “materiality of language,” and the “power of language to shape reality,” she said, it was important to reflect this material quality in the exhibit. Cadieu chose texts with ink blots, stains, drawings and doodles to highlight Wittig’s personality.
Young noted the current relevance of Wittig’s work that was done almost 40 years ago. He noted Witting’s use of pronouns and how “language bears gender.”
“I think the value of archives lies in how they retain evidence about things that may matter in the future,” Young said. “Wittig was one of the first people to push boundaries and get people to talk about these things, even if we may not completely agree with her now.”
The exhibit will remain on view until Dec. 15.
Freya Savla | firstname.lastname@example.org