That was amazing. Just amazing. I can’t believe it’s not more canonical.
So, after the first circle (which isn’t really the first circle, by the way: Wittig asks her guide, Manastabal, about that, and she looks at her askance – she does that a lot – and says I don’t know if the circles of hell have been numbered. But in any case, I don’t have any intention of taking you to them in order.) we go to various other circles of hell, all of which are inhabited by groups of women – as in Manastabal’s programmatic speech, the women are anonymous and collective, and hell is our world, so each circle is an intensified, allegorical representation of an aspect of women’s lives under patriarchy. Using Dante as a model lets Wittig present a really physicalized, grotesque, and violent world in a defamiliarized and non-squicky way, and also to give the everyday workings of patriarchy an epic gravity. One of the circles which went home to me in particular was the circle of the ‘annexes’,* where Wittig sees women walking around the city, always with one or more annexes (to the extent that when you see a woman without one, you think: ‘She must be a dyke’). Manastabal tells Wittig to look at the women more closely, and she sees that
Elles portent un sourire sans éclat mais permanent car il est leur étoile jaune.
They wear a smile without sparkle, but a permanent one: it is their yellow star.
Which reminds me of Shulamith Firestone’s brilliant No Smile Week: a week where women stop smiling, and men don’t have their path through the world smoothed by the affective labour of women. The compulsoriness of the female smile. The way just walking around not smiling makes men affronted enough to shout at you on the street (cheer up love! it might never happen!)
Anyway, Wittig watches the women being slowed down, dragged down, torn apart, by their annexes; watches them say: I love them! I don’t know what I’d do without them!; and says:
C’est comme la noeud gordien, sauf qu’il faut trancher dans la chair vive.
It’s like the Gordian knot, except that you have to cut through living flesh.
Which… is just the unsolvable tussle and tension and back-and-forth between ideal solutions and subjectivities, desires, needs, formed in less-than-ideal worlds, in a single line. I LOVE HER.
The other thing that I really really love about this book is the relationship between Wittig and Manastabal. Many of you will know that I am abjectly soppy about the relationship between Virgil and Dante in the Divine Comedy, and this takes that relationship to a whole new level of awesome.** Wittig is an angry, fierce, Hothead-Paisan-style violent dyke who sees the world in black-and-white, and Manastabal’s job is to teach her compassion. So throughout Hell, Wittig is fiercely and bitterly angry with the women they meet: in San Francisco Central Station, where the women are so busy and important that they trample each other to death and shove each other under the trains in their haste to board, and each train is followed by a sweeping-up-machine which clears the rails of the dismembered bodies left behind, she suddenly bursts out at them all, like WHAT THE FUCK IS SO IMPORTANT? YOU ARE SLAVES! YOU ARE JUST RUSHING TO DO CHORES! YOU ARE CRIMINALS AND MURDERERS, AND FOR WHAT??? And Manastabal is all like, Well, that was a nice display of feeling, Wittig, now what are you going to DO about it? About the things that cause this suffering? And moves her on. Oh, it’s so fantastic. So full of rage and compassion and love.
Oh! And as for compassion, this is what Manastabal says about it, towards the end of the book [very loose translation]:
Only active passion, Wittig, will get you to paradise, but the words for it don’t exist. It’s usually given the name ‘compassion’. But that word doesn’t do justice to what I mean. For it boils, ferments, explodes, exalts, embraces, disturbs, transports, drags everything away with it, just like that other passion does, when one is embraced by another woman on equal terms. The same violence is there, the same tension. The passion which will get you to paradise, just like the other one, undoes your arms and your legs, knots up your stomach, weakens your knees, makes you sick, twists and empties your bowels, troubles your vision and takes your hearing away. But also, just like the other one, it gives you arms to strike, legs to run, mouths to speak, and faculties to reason. It develops your muscles, puts you through weapons training, and changes the form of your body.
All of which is brilliant enough, but Wittig is unimpressed: I LIKE THE BIT ABOUT THE LEGS TO RUN AWAY! LET’S ALL RUN AWAY TOGETHER! VAGABONDS! RUNAWAYS! HOORAH! (And Manastabal is like: Where to, Wittig? Have you got a Mississippi, where we’ll all be free on the other side? I DON’T THINK SO. You are running in circles, aren’t you?)
So, in conclusion, read Across the Acheron in 2011. You will not regret it.
*That’s the only word she uses for them: the only translations I can find for it are ‘annexe’ or ‘appendix’, but I think it’s pretty clear what she means.
**There are a few references to Virgil in the book: my favourite one is when they’re in Limbo – which is a gay bar, a place of truce (‘it’s not paradise, but without places like this, it would be hell, which shows how precious and necessary they are – and at the same time how precarious and rare’). Anyway, they’re in Limbo, and one of the bandits and mafiosi who inhabit Limbo comes over to ask Manastabal to dance: she says it’s a painful duty to have to decline, but she says it ‘with the sweetness of a Virgil ready to yield to the first beautiful boy to come along’. Which always makes me smile.
Virgil’s gayness, by the way, is like a really strange, really open secret. No-one ever talks about him as an early queer poet/role model/forefather/whatever: if you google “was shakespeare gay” you get 3,900 results, the top few saying YES OBVIOUSLY, while “was virgil gay” gets you two, both of which are sentence fragments about a guy whose name ‘was Virgil Gay’. But! The Eclogues is all about boy-on-boy love! The Aeneid is all about how heterosexuality is bad and wrong and contains awesome m/m warrior lovers! The earliest extant biography doesn’t mention him ever marrying (mildly remarkable under Augustus’ fiercely pro-marriage legislation) and says libidinis in pueros pronioris, ‘his desires were inclined towards boys’. It is puzzling to me why his queerness is not more widely celebrated.