Virgile, Non!

Term has finished! It’s vacation! I have nothing in my diary until 6 January when I’m chairing a panel at this conference!

J said, and I was alarmed to realize that it’s true, that this is the first point at which I can take a break and recharge my batteries after submitting the book. So last Christmas vacation was spent in writing frenzy, trying to get the manuscript done and submitted for early February; I… literally have no memory of the Easter vacation (it may have involved conferences, marking, or just staring into space, who can say? My only post from around that time suggests marking and staring into space, but I guess I was also gearing up for the Desiring the Text conference); the so-called summer was spent in (cold, rainy, wintry) Melbourne being J’s back-up person while she spent important time with various beleaguered/sick friends and family, plus I had a conference in July, three conferences in September, and one in October.

Anyway, now, a month of baggy time. So much I want to do: vids to make, fic to write, books to read, space to stare into, blog posts to write. What I’m doing RIGHT NOW, though, is lying on the sofa drinking mint-and-chilli tea (highly recommended) and eating potato chips* (not highly recommended but indispensible) and reading Monique Wittig’s book Virgile, Non, a 1980s French lesbian-feminist retelling of the Divine Comedy, which the awesome Susan Hawthorne put me onto at the Sappho conference at Monash, though the English title – Across the Acheron – is less exciting for me, because look, they took Virgil out!

Anyway, so, Virgile, Non. It is completely brilliant: hugely immersive and physical, brilliantly un-dated and unhumorous in its 80s updating of Dante (I’ve also been reading The Scum Manifesto and it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes in a superior 2010 ‘my slang is cool but yours is stupid’ way** at lines like Why should the fates of the groovy and the creepy be intertwined?, even though actually it’s probably a more rigorous and honest sentence than one which substituted non-slang words for ‘groovy’ and ‘creepy’). I fell for it immediately, then I fell for it harder on the third page when I reached Manastabal’s programmatic speech (my slightly loose translation):

There is nothing where we’re going, Wittig – at least nothing that you don’t already know. We are indeed going into another world, as you thought, but the sun lights it up just like the world from which we are coming. And you will need vast stores of ingenuity to render heroic the sighs, the cries of pain, of anguish, of terror and of uncertainty which will be heard there. The damned souls that you will meet there are living, even if they make ardent vows no longer to be so. They are anonymous, and I defy you, indeed, to find any particularities in them from which you can make them a cloak of glory. For them, the horror and the unremitting suffering are not caused by the wickedness of their actions. I am taking you to see what can be seen everywhere in the daylight world.

All the ‘theys’ are feminine, by the way – which I think is grammatically accurate since they technically refer back to ‘souls’ (ame, f) but which I also don’t think is a coincidence. So Wittig is using the format of the Divine Comedy – an enquiry into the religious/ethical causation of suffering and justice, and into fame, language, and truth – to write about the anonymous, unheroic, undeserved suffering of women.

A couple of sections further on, we seem to have entered the first circle of Hell, which is full of homophobic women abusing Wittig for being a lesbian. She’s just about to turn on them and call them all shrews when she remembers:

I adopted the high style [of epic] to give a bit of razzle-dazzle to our enslaved sex… and it’s better to let the enemy have the trouble of dragging it [our sex] through the mud, which he never troubles about doing.

So that is already completely brilliant, but then three or four pages into the scene we discover that it is taking place IN A LAUNDRETTE, and I lose my heart completely to Monique Wittig. A laundrette! The first circle of hell is a laundrette! ::swoons::

*There is no word for these in British English despite them being a very British snack. They are crisps, not chips, but they are tiny little sticks like matchsticks. The packet says ‘Sainsbury’s Potato Chips Ready Salted’. I don’t know why it is so important to me to explain this.

**cf ‘YKINOK’

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