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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4 (2007) 543-551

The Literary Workshop
An Excerpt
Monique Wittig
Translated by Catherine Temerson and Sande Zeig

Introduction: Word by Word

Monique Wittig completed The Literary Workshop (Le chantier littéraire) in Gualala, California, in 1986, as her dissertation for the Diplôme de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Gérard Genette was the director, and Louis Marin and Christian Metz were readers. Wittig wrote The Literary Workshop at a time of immense productivity. The previous year she had published her novel Virgile, non (Across the Acheron) and produced a play, The Constant Journey (Le voyage sans fin).1 She wrote several of her landmark theoretical essays during this period, most notably "The Trojan Horse" ("Le cheval de Troie," 1984), "The Place of Action" ("Le lieu de l'action," 1984), and "The Mark of Gender" ("La marque du genre," 1985).2 Many of the ideas for the articles were developed during her work on The Literary Workshop. Wittig planned to publish The Literary Workshop with P.O.L. (Paris) in November 1999 immediately after the publication of Paris-la-politique in May of that year.3 However, the death of Nathalie Sarraute in October 1999 made this impossible.

Wittig met Sarraute in 1964, when Sarraute was on the jury that awarded Wittig the Prix Médicis for her first book, L'opoponax.4 From that time on, Wittig and Sarraute developed a deep and lasting friendship. The Literary Workshop is Wittig's "homage à Nathalie Sarraute et au pouvoir du language" (homage to Nathalie Sarraute and to the power of language).5 Wittig started working on The Literary Workshop again during the last months of her life. She had some concerns about the publication of the manuscript, which she was in the midst of addressing. One concern was that there had been many developments in literary criticism since the date of the original manuscript in the late 1980s. In fact, Wittig was [End Page 543] working on new theoretical concepts. A handwritten note in the original manuscript indicates where she intended to add a chapter.

The following excerpt of The Literary Workshop is from a chapter titled "The Existing Forms: Literature." Wittig read this excerpt at the first international colloquium on her work held in Paris in June 2001. She dedicated a great deal of time to theoretical essays on language and literature in the 1980s and 1990s. As a professor, Wittig made it a point to bring the workshop into the classroom, teaching her students to write "word by word."

The Literary Workshop is a beautiful reverie on the writer's task in the fabrication of literature. It expands on what Wittig presents in The Straight Mind and Other Essays as her main concern: writing.6 —Sande Zeig [End Page 544]

The Literary Workshop

I call "literary workshop" the chaotic space where books are fabricated. It is the painter's studio, a space at once concrete and abstract. Yet, however vast it may be, the only space particular to the literary workshop is the blank page. The first thing that I would like to discuss about the literary workshop is the notion of heterogeneity.

One learns very early on that it is no more possible to add up cabbages and turnips than it is to divide, multiply, or subtract them, for the difference between these objects renders the operation invalid. Only objects belonging to the same category can be subjected to this kind of operation. But categories themselves are elastic. For nothing, indeed, prevents one from adding cabbages and turnips if they are regrouped under the same category, "vegetables." The fact is that cabbages and turnips are not of a different nature (substance). The impossibility of the aforementioned operations concerning different units from the same category is thus relative. One can continue to consider the impossibility as relative, even if instead of associating a cabbage with another vegetable one proceeds...


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