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Constructions of gender and genre in Chantal Chawaf's Retable-la Reverie

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Constructions of gender and genre in Chantal Chawaf's Retable-la Reverie
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Droppleman, Elizabeth I
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Grammatical gender ( jstor )
Masculinity ( jstor )
Mothers ( jstor )
Narratives ( jstor )
Parody ( jstor )
Performative utterances ( jstor )
Women ( jstor )
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Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 1999.
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Includes bibliographical references (leaves 183-194).
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Typescript.
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Vita.
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by Elizabeth I. Droppleman.

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CONSTRUCTIONS OF GENDER AND GENRE
IN CHANTAL CHAWAF'S RETABLE-LA REVERIE











By

ELIZABETH I. DROPPLEMAN














A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

1999



























Copyright 1999

by

Elizabeth Droppleman













ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


This dissertation could not have been realized without

the generosity of many individuals. I am especially grateful

to the committee Chair, Dr. William Calin, and the members

of the supervisory committee, Dr. John Leavey, Dr. Carol

Murphy, Dr. Ofelia Schutte, and Dr. Gayle Zachmann, for the

expert advice and direction that made possible the

completion of this project. Special thanks is in order for

Dr. Gayle Zachmann's tireless work with me on the genesis of

this study; her extraordinary commitment to mentoring

students has provided me with a model that I will strive to
emulate.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' award of a
Threadgil Dissertation Fellowship and the Department of

Romance Languages and Literatures' award of a Nancy Kaufmann

Scholarship for study abroad provided generous support of

which I am appreciative.

Finally, I cannot possibly how fully my family (Mom,

Dad, Susan, Jackie, John, Richard, Timothy, Taylor, Ellen),

friends (Joe, Judy, Kristy, Xandria, Jeannine, Val, Bill,

Hutch), and Wayne have supported me through this endeavor. I

continue to be moved by their gifts of unfailing
encouragement and love. This dissertation is dedicated to

Mary Lutz and Irene Murphy in remembrance of the past, and

to the future of Ellen, Alexa, and our girls to come.















TABLE OF CONTENTS
page

ACKNOWLEGMENTS ..................... .................... iii

ABSTRACT .................................... ............ v

INTRODUCTION .............................................. 1

Notes ............ ....... ................... .......... 12

CHAPTER ONE. MIMICRY AND PERFORMATIVITY .................. 15

Sexual (In)Difference, Representation and Matter....... 17
The Mirror and Mim6tisme .............................20
Rereading Plato ................... .................. 28
Rereading Freud ....................................... 35
Gender Performativity ................................... 47
Conclusion.................................. .... ......... 61
Notes. .................... ............................. 64

CHAPTER TWO. GOING AGAINST FICTION: PARATEXT AND PARODY
IN RETABLE-LA REVERIE ...................................67

Paratext ..................... ................... ........ 70
Grossesse ....... ....................................... 74
Peritext and Autofiction ................................ 85
Titles and Construction ................................. 89
Cover Art .............................................. 96
Notes ..................... ................... .......... 105

CHAPTER THREE. MIMICRY: QUEST AND DREAM IN RETABLE-LA
REVERIE. .............................................. 108

R6sume ................... ............................. 111
Retable. ............................................... 117
Naissance .................... ...................... 117
Document (I) ..................... .................... 140
Portrait ........................................... 142
Mausol e ............................................ 150
La Riverie ............................................151
Notes. .................... ............................. 172

CONCLUSION .............................................. 174

Notes .............. .... .................... ......... 182

REFERENCES .... .......... ............... ............ 183

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ........... .......................... 195







iv













Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
CONSTRUCTIONS OF GENDER AND GENRE
IN CHANTAL CRAWAF'S RETABLE-LA REVERIE

By

Elizabeth I. Droppleman

May, 1999
Chairman: William C. Calin
Major Department: Romance Languages and Literatures

Chantal Chawaf's dazzling combinations of words, images

and metaphors forge new possibilities for conceptualizing

the body, particularly the female body. Nonetheless, she

remains a controversial figure among feminist and literary

critics who insist that traditional archetypes of woman and

established literary convention contaminate her avant-garde

practice of ecriture feminine ("feminine writing").

In "Constructions of Gender and Genre," I argue that

Chawaf's excessive displays of gender and literary

convention in the novel Retable-la reverie form an integral

part of her mimetic strategy. This strategy entails a

hyperbolic performance of gender and genre norms that

actually parodies them. Undermining the norms of literary

and gender convention, her parody also subverts the values

that support and sustain them.

Rereading Retable-la reverie through the optic of a

feminist mimetic strategy sheds light on Chawaf's poetic and

narrative tactics, as well as her marginal place among








practitioners of ecriture feminine. In effect, her novel is

a quintessential example of this radical practice. It not

only subverts traditional literary and generic norms, it

operates within, yet against, the establishment of ecriture

feminine itself to expose and expand the boundaries of this

avant-garde writing practice.

Drawing from Luce Irigaray's practice of textual

mimicry and Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity,

Chapter One lays the theoretical groundwork for the study of

Chawaf's mimetic strategy.

Chapter Two examines the construction of the novel

through paratextual elements ranging from its material

borders--cover art, titles, headings--to the symbolic figure

of the womb that symbolizes the ethical dimension of

Chawaf's &criture feminine. Her maternal metaphor provides a

representation of radically different self/other relations:

a shift in the struggle for identity from a paradigm of

dominance/subordination to mutual recognition.

A close reading of the narrative, Chapter Three traces

how the stereotypes of Mother and Woman are subversively

reiterated as they are repeated in the narrative. Retable-la

reverie creates an imaginative performance of sexual

reborderization that is constantly negotiated through

Chawaf's writing of the body. Whether strategically using

myths of Woman or boundary markers of genre, Chawaf's

practice of ecriture feminine remains faithful to the

subversion of established convention, and presents and

example par excellence of innovative avant-garde writing.














INTRODUCTION

Combining startling sensuous images with flowing

lyrical prose, contemporary French novelist, playwright,

poet, and philosopher Chantal Chawaf stands as a distinctive

literary figure at this fin-de-siecle. While acknowledged by

some as one of the more inventive, experimental writers of

this century,' she continues the rebellious French literary

tradition of writers who view fiction as a powerful form of

social and political resistance.

Praising Chawaf's literary talents, her critics

emphasize that her dazzling combinations of words, images,

and metaphors forge new possibilities for conceptualizing

the body, particularly the female body. Nonetheless, she

remains a polemical figure among feminist literary critics

who dismiss her texts for reifying traditional ways of

thinking about gender and sex. It is significant that, on

the one hand, she has been relatively neglected outside the

circles of feminist criticism, and that, within these

circles, some fault her for not apparently adhering to the

generally accepted ideological aesthetics of the movement.

Her subversive practice seems deeply flawed to feminist

critics who enter her texts searching for radical

innovation, yet find there, on both philosophical and

literary levels, the very masculinist norms they wished to








escape. To give form to her female characters, she draws

from a stereotypically female biological and material

register of mounds of flesh, mucus, and mother's milk. This

intense embodiment is interpreted as a sign of their

inherent powerlessness. Controversial for shocking

sensibilities and transgressing literary propriety, her

corporeal poetics provokes strong, een visceral,

reactions.2 To a greater extent than her contemporaries, she

is blamed for having so explicitly "tied the practice of

feminine writing to the biological fact of motherhood"

(Suleiman, "Writing and Motherhood" 370).

Viewed as fundamentally contradictory in form and

content, Chawaf's innovative linguistic manipulation is said

to break with normative convention. Yet, adding fuel to the

charges of essentialism, her novels continue to rely upon

polarized, socially "fixed" stereotypes: the masculine

symbolizing the mind, the intelligible, culture, activity,

light; the feminine as the body, the irrational, the

sensible, nature, passivity, obscurity (224). Such

masculinist archetypes of woman, critics insist, contaminate

her avant-garde practice of ecriture feminine. As Bosshard

remarks,

ce que nous montrent les couples chawafiens c'est
l'affrontement des personnages feminins et masculins,
repartis dans des r6les virils d'un c6te et feminins
hypertrophies de l'autre. (223)

Even if her poetic style aims to represent the body in

innovative ways, her writing reiterates an unenlightened

paradigm of woman's nature in critics' views. Like the








Virgin Mary and Dante's Beatrice, her female figures are

often likened to the bountiful Mother Earth: closer to

nature than males, and a medium of access through which man

can communicate with higher spiritual forces. In this

paradigm it seems that woman functions only in relation to

man; passive, she serves only in his quest for self-

knowledge. Reflector, supporter, and "nurturer of the male

ego" appears to be the only role played by Chawaf's women,

Valerie Hannagan observes (183).

Aiming at a feminist vision of harmonious relations

between men and women, these relations in Chawaf's world, it

has been argued, are paradoxically often marked by a

depressive tone and marked by the failure of her female

protagonists to escape their alienation, as in Retable-la

reverie and L'Interieur des heures. How could the repetition

of such stereotypes undermine binary logic and put into

question the symbolic exclusion of the feminine? It cannot,

Bosshard decides: "la bipolarisation des 6tres en sexe

masculin et sexe f6minin persist" (223). In the end, the

promise her writing holds for envisaging new male/female

relations remains unfulfilled, Hannagan argues. She conveys

the general opinion succinctly: Chawaf's "textual body is

rich in symptoms, but ultimately the redemption it seeks to

achieve is firmly grounded in the status quo" (190).

The contradictory reception of Chawaf's work, largely among

American feminist critics, can be explained, in part, by the

rise of the philosophical essentialist critique during the








1970s and 1980s. Now, however, the essentialist/

constructivist dichotomy is being rethought.' An alliance

with sexual difference has been seen as a foundational move,

instead of taking into account the social constructionist

aspect of French feminist thought. In Bodies That Matter,

Butler proposes that the tradition to which Irigaray belongs

ultimately challenges the essentialist/constructivist

dichotomy at the basis of much feminist practice. Chawaf's

work can also be read through such a perspective. Rather

than setting limits to conceptualizations of sexuality, its

purpose, I propose, ultimately serves to put into question

the foundations and boundaries of discourses on sexuality.

Furthermore, the anti-establishment tenet as the

impetus for diverse practices of 6criture feminine has often

been overlooked. The rubric ecriture feminine groups

together an eclectic corpus of texts by radical female

intellectuals writing from the early 1970s to the present.4

Jaded by their male counterparts in the revolution of 1968,

these authors initiated their own revolt; they purloined the

intellectual and literary weapons of this still too

conventional peer group whose modus operandi was grounded in

the questioning of all established convention. Hle8ne Cixous

coined the phrase ecriture feminine in her famous 1976

manifesto "Le Rire de la meduse," which underscores the

massive attack behind this practice aimed at the foundation

of masculine-biased institutions:

Un texte f6minin ne peut pas ne pas @tre plus que
subversif: s'il s'ecrit, c'est en soulevant,








volcanique, la vieille croate immobilibre, porteuse des
investissements masculins, et pas autrement; il n'y a
pas de place pour elle si elle nest pas un il? Si elle
est elle-elle, ce n'est qu'a tout casser, a mettre en
pieces les batis des institutions, & faire sauter la
loi en l'air, A tordre la 'v6rit6' de rire. (49)

This writing practice aims to refute tradition by attacking

it at its core, by magnifying the operations of the literary

institution from within the terms of its own discourse in

order to shake up what appears to be the solid ground of its

assumptions. This explosive process aims to dismantle the

misogynous ethics behind model-copy representation. As

Chawaf says, she writes in order to,

arriver donc & l'interieur, quitter les surfaces
parce qu'il remettrait tout en question, parce que
les privileges tomberaient. ("Ecrire A partir du corps
vivant" 119)

On what grounds, then, can critics repudiate Chawaf's

version of a practice that epitomizes the seditious values

of 6criture feminine?

In this light, we can understand Chawaf's "r8les

f6minins hypertrophids" and other excessive displays of

convention as anything but gratuitous. In effect, they form

an integral part of what I call her performative mimetic

strategy. While mimesiss" traditionally denotes the faithful

representation of nature, Chawaf's mimetic strategy entails

a hyperbolic performance of gender norms that actually

parodies them. The aim of her project is not simply to

mirror "reality" but, through a more complex notion of

referentiality, to interrogate the limits of thinking about

sexed bodies. This parodic, imitative tactic (what Cixous








refers to as the "elle-elle") seeks to highlight the

constructed aspect of gender norms through an insistence on

the slippage in meaning of the signifier. In doing so, it

challenges theories of the stability of the symbolic order,

and the supposed exclusion of the feminine from this realm.

Chawaf's parodies serve to undermine not only gender

and representational norms but also the values that support

and sustain them. Mikhail Bakhtin has articulated the

transformative operation at work in parody. Through it,

language is transformed from the absolute dogma it had
been within the narrow framework of a sealed-off and
impermeable monoglossia into a working hypothesis for
comprehending and expressing reality. (61)

From his conception of parody, Suleiman notes that we arrive

at the

contemporary feminist insight that the stories we
tell about reality construe the real, rather than
merely reflect it. Whence the possibility, or the hope,
that through the rewriting of old stories and the
invention of new forms of language for doing so, it is
the world as well as the words that will be
transformed. (143)

It is from within a tradition of analytic exposure that

Chawaf uses textual parody as a means toward recasting the

language and grammar of the symbolic order,s exploring this

tactic's potential for symbolizing the feminine in hopes of

altering oppressive self/other relations.

Despite her emphasis on plurality and diff6rance in

signification, Chawaf's work continues to be denounced when

her 6criture feminine fails to meet the standards that

critics have imposed. For example, her work has been

measured against a criterion of laughter celebrated in








Cixous' "Rire de la meduse" and has been judged

insufficiently transgressive. Dismissing Chawaf's texts for

their lyrical tendencies, Suleiman implies that a

subversive, authentic ecriture feminine would above all be

laughter provoking:

little of the writing thus produced was playful in the
ordinary sense of lighthearted, or just plain funny.
Annie Leclerc, Chantal Chawaf, and Julia Kristeva .
opted for the expansive lyric mode when writing as
mothers. Although lyric can be full of invention, it
does not offer much possibility for humor or parody.
(168)

If parody and irony are loaded signifiers with multiple

meanings, should this element in Chawaf's writing be

discounted simply because it does not provoke laughter in

the narrow sense?

According to Chawaf, critics' brief honeymoon with

ecriture feminine in the 70s ended when its unsettling

implications began to come of light:

On a 6t6 un temps amoureux socialement de l'&criture
feminine en se gardant bien d'aller voir la
metaphysique qui se cachait derriere. Quoiqu'on 6crive
de neuf, on risque d'@tre lu par des habitudes
millionaires qui chercheront a nous r6primer. (43)

She attributes critics' initial enthusiasm for &criture

feminine, and their fairly rapid decline in interest, to a

refusal to examine the disturbing philosophy it brought to

light: a metaphysics of the repressed feminine. As my

analysis of Chawaf's texts through the critical framework

provided by Irigaray and Butler will demonstrate, to

understand Chawaf's work from another optic would mean to

challenge thinking based on binary oppositions--even to the








point of questioning the sex/gender distinction at the basis

of feminist practice. Considering the role language plays in

constructing the sex/gender split appears to work against

the ends that feminist practices stand and strive for. How

could feminism proceed, critics argue, without relying on

the stability of sex as a foundation? Butler consents that

it could not at this time. For political reasons, the

sex/gender distinction must be maintained, if only

tactically. Within feminism, "sex" is the site of woman's

oppression and as such is a concept that enables feminist

practice. However, a systematic questioning of the

foundation is not the same as discarding it altogether.

Instead, such interrogation might reveal the possible

function of "sex" as a constraining limit and lead to new

ways of thinking about--and a new ethics of--sexual

difference.

This study interrogates the limits critics have imposed

on Chawaf's ecriture feminine in order to demonstrate how

her project is a quintessential example of this radical

practice; in effect, her writing not only undermines

traditional gender norms, it works within, yet against, the

established standards for ecriture feminine itself in order

to expose and expand the boundaries of this avant-garde

writing practice.

Chapter One examines the philosophical thought of

feminist philosophers Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler, that

I believe useful for the analysis of Chawaf's oeuvre.








Rereading her work in the context of Irigaray's "mimetisme"

and Butler's theory of gender performativity can refine the

understanding of the concept of matter important to her

textual and ethical strategies in support of a theory of

sexual difference.

As Irigaray and Butler demonstrate, the concept of

matter has been largely seen as outside social, historical,

and cultural structures. Irigaray and Butler seek to expose

the idea of the exteriority of form to matter that

conditions discourses on identity formation.6 Rereading

foundational philosophical texts, they simultaneously aim to

refigure concepts of the body and materiality within this

tradition. Irigaray and Butler challenge the authority of

philosophical discourse, revealing the extent to which the

latter is historically shaped and biased, highly literary,

and often paradoxically dependent on those elements the

authors' thought attempts to devalorise. When seen as a

product of, as well as productive of, social types of power,

matter can become a site of resistance to oppression.

The first part of Chapter One discusses aspects of

Irigaray's work that provide the groundwork for Chawaf's

mimetic strategy and Butler's performative theory. It

explores how Irigaray, through textual mimicry,

systematically questions the conditions, and exclusions, of

the production of matter within Freudian psychoanalysis and

Aristotelian philosophy. The feminine has been excluded from

these discourses, she claims, and the result is by no means








neutral: it is a more or less unconscious strategy for

denying sexual difference, thereby perpetuating male

privilege. Her close textual readings provide insights for

understanding how material bodies and the symbolic realm in

which they signify are marked by social, cultural,

historical, and literary contexts (24).

Expanding Irigaray's line of inquiry, Butler draws not

only from philosophy and psychoanalysis but also from the

linguistic theory of performative speech acts, in order to

conceptualize a broader framework for understanding identity

formation and agency. She argues that philosophical

statements are not purely constative, that is, descriptive

statements about the nature of things. To embrace this line

of thinking would be comparable to understanding mimesis as

the faithful representation of nature. Philosophical

statements are also performative, she claims, productive of

the situation they appear to be describing. Butler's theory

of the social construction of "sex" as a performative

process involves the repetitive citing of norms and

conventions, forming and constraining over time the human

agent through the threat of prohibition. Continually in

process, the boundaries of body types are marked through the

repeated invocation of gender norms. Yet, this reiteration

of norms proves ambivalent. Although it may be the occasion

for shoring up the norm, Butler contends that it also

provides the possibility for its subversion. Rethinking

Chawaf's &criture feminine as a performative tactic broadens








our understanding of this avant-garde practice and its

potential as a strategy for transforming the social

structure of oppression.

Chapters Two and Three address Chawaf's mimetic

strategy and its subversive use of gender norms and generic

convention in her first and most important work, Retable-la

reverie. Chapter Two examines some aspects of the novel's

paratext. As formulated by Gerard Genette, paratextual

elements belong to a realm mediating between text and world,

writer and reader, where meaning remains open to

negotiation.' An exploration of the paratext provides

insights into how Retable-la reverie's construction

interrogates ways of thinking about bodies and texts, and

the links between the two. Chawaf's use of the maternal

metaphor is discussed in light of her mimetic strategy. An

expanded use of metaphor, the figure of the pregnant womb is

understood in the context of Irigaray's phenomenology of

proximity--an alternative to specular theories of subject

formation.

I also argue that Chawaf exploits paratextual elements

as possible sites of symbolic transformation. The titles,

the cover art, and the work's divisions signal a shift from

representation to the scenography of representation, from

attention to what is represented to how it is shown and

received. In order to prepare the reader to accommodate her

non-conventional use of generic and gender convention in the

narrative, she emphasizes the function of the paratextual








elements to encourage reflection on modes of reading signs.

Such an emphasis aims to effect the cognitive shifts

necessary for new ways of thinking about the body and the

text--accenting the dynamic functioning of language and its

performative power to reconceptualize the symbolic.

Chapter Three offers a close reading of the double

novel, Retable-La reverie, exploring feminine writing of the

body as a subversive mimetic strategy and a locus of

metamorphosis. It examines the protagonist's quest to

uncover the truth about her birth mother and her attempts to

refigure the maternal-feminine through the act of writing.

It demonstrates how Chawaf's use of hyperbolic poetic

language enacts a performance of gender norms, co-opting

stereotypical conceptions of female materiality and desire

in a subtle, paradoxical way in order to undermine them.

Crossing back through the images and language historically

employed to devalorise the feminine she criticizes their

traditional usage. Simultaneously, through metaphor, she

expands the conception of the maternal-feminine, developing

a poesis that attempts to create a space for the expression

of her specifically feminine desire.



Notes

Among others, see Colette Nys-Mazure, "Chantal
Chawaf: 'Rouge&tre'," Les Cahiers du GRIF (1978): 179-80;
Francine de Martinoir, "Territoires sur fond t6nebreux," La
Ouinzaine litt&raire 498 (1987): 8; Jacques Vandenschrick,
"Corinna Bille et Chantal Chawaf, saints &critures du
d6sir..." La Revue nouvelle 69.4 (1979): 434-38; Monique









Nagem, afterword, Mother Love: Mother Earth, by Chantal
Chawaf, trans. Monique F. Nagem (Hamden: Garland, 1992) 101-
111; Christiane P. Makward and Judith G. Miller, eds.,
foreword, "Warmth: A Bloodsong," trans. Christiane P.
Makward, Judith G. Miller, and Cynthia Running-Johnson, in
Plays by French and Francophone Women (Ann Arbor: Univ.
Michigan Press, 1994) 233-46.

In "De Retable a Rougeatre," Chawaf recounts, not
without a note of pleasure, an anecdote testifying to
readers' intense bodily reactions: "Deux ou trois homes
apres la lecture de B1 de semences se sont pr&cipites au
lavabo pour y vomir" (88). Such responses approach Cixous'
criterion for &criture feminine: "Les vrais textes de
femmes, des textes avec des sexes de femmes, ca ne leur fait
pas plaisir; ca les &coeure" ("Rire de la M6duse" 40).

3 See Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive
Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993); Carolyn Burke,
Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford, eds., Engaging with
Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought
(New York: Columbia UP, 1994); Margaret Whitford, Luce
Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (London: Routledge,
1991); Linda J. Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism (London:
Routledge, 1990); Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation:
Ethical Feminism. Deconstruction, and the Law (New York:
Routledge, 1991).

SAs an author transgressive of convention and
tradition, it is not surprising that Chawaf herself does not
use this epithet to describe her own practice. Although in
the 1970s the classification served a purpose in promoting a
certain type of woman's literature, Chawaf believes that, in
the long run, it also served to erode the legitimacy of such
threatening writing: "Mes livres ont subi ce que les femmes
ont subi. On a pr6f6r6 jouir d'eux plutSt de les comprendre"
("L'action du language" 43). Despite Chawaf's reservations, I
have chosen to retain the epithet for the purposes of this
study. Sometimes the most effective way to be heard, perhaps
the only way as, Irigaray reminds us, is to participate in
the term of the discourse one is criticizing. This label,
after all, has been useful in facilitating the defense and
illustration of feminine writing.

s The "symbolic" is used throughout this dissertation
in the Lacanian sense, as the linguistic dimension of the
social order in which sexual identity may be constructed.
See Jacques Lacan, "Fonction et champ de la parole et du
language en psychanalyse," Ecrits I (Paris: Editions du
Seuil, 1966) pp. 111-208.





14



6 Although Butler draws heavily from Irigaray in her
discussion of the form/matter dichotomy, she also condemns
Irigaray for essentialism. This paradox inherent in Butler's
criticism of Irigaray is discussed at length in Chapter One.

SIn Gerard Genette, Seuils (Paris: Editions du Seuil,
1987).














CHAPTER ONE
MIMICRY AND PERFORMATIVITY

No body, for Irigaray, exists unmediated by textuality.

Never completely biologically predetermined, bodies are

socially constructed in a complex and shifting way,

"penetrated and disciplined by discourse, gender codes, by

culture" (Diamond 154). Philosophical conceptualizations

(such as knowledge, the idea, the subject, and substance)

play an active role in constructing and interpreting the

"reality" of sexed bodies, she contends, and each bodily

form is invested with a cultural value. Irigaray views

bodies, then, as not just the sum of their biological parts,

but also as produced and conditioned within a social matrix.

Her thesis is that this social order is sexually-

indifferent.' As such, it deprives women of subjectivity as

well as of their own relation to language, and therefore the

possibility of speaking their desires and dreams.2 As a

result, the lack of feminine subjectivity has dire economic,

political, and social consequences for the lives of women

and of men.

One way to understand the link between bodies and texts

is through Irigaray's conceptualization of the Imaginary. In

Luce Irigaray, Philosophy in the Feminine, Margaret Whitford

explains Irigaray's expanded use of this term. It is not

simply a synonym for unconscious fantasy (as in Lacanian








psychoanalytic theory): it also connotes, in the Sartrian

sense, an "intentional object of the imagining

consciousness," encompassing internal fantasies (i.e.

daydreams) as well as external products such as literature

and art (54). In addition, a Bachelardian influence can be

traced in her idea that the four elements underlie the

imagination and condition individuals' passions, limits, and

aspirations.

Not only is the Imaginary organized by air, fire,

water, and earth, Irigaray claims, but at the most basic

level it is marked by sex. As such, the Imaginary can be a

powerful creative source for change. On a discursive level,

she characterizes products of the male imaginary as

singular, linear, and involving a unified, static identity

as opposed to those of the nonlinear, plural feminine of

fluid identity. Ethique de la difference sexuelle opens with

the statement that sexual difference is the major

philosophical question of the late twentieth century (5). To

Irigaray, it is only through the understanding of this

concept at the level of discourse--a recognition of female

sexual difference--that transformation in the condition of

women can be effected.3

Irigaray attacks the problem of sexual indifferencee

through a close look at the scene of representation, and the

role played by the mirror and matter. In textual re-

readings, she deploys a tactic of mimicry ("mimetisme").

From such a perspective, she aims to unveil the exclusionary








logic of sexual indifference as a first step toward thinking

a post-patriarchal space where woman's difference can be

symbolized.

The first half of this chapter explores Irigaray's

understanding of mimesis, the mirror, and the concept of

matter, as well as the tactic of mimicry deployed in her

critique of Freud's theories of sexuality and in her re-

reading of Plato's allegory for the production of forms. The

second half of this discussion elaborates Butler's theory of

gender performativity. The framework developed by Irigaray

and Butler offers insights for interpreting Chawaf's

&criture feminine.

Sexual (In)Difference. Representation, and Matter

Derrida's now familiar critique of the scene of

representation demonstrates how the patriarchal order is

organized by a dialectical and hierarchial system of

binaries (i.e., male/female, form/matter, mind/body,

culture/nature, activity/passivity), the first term

privileged over the second.4 While some feminist theory

seeks to revalorize the negative/feminine poles of this

binary structure, for Irigaray this strategy proves flawed:

"Ii ne s'agit pas de renverser." It is not a question of

replacing male privilege with female privilege even if that

were possible, since "cela reviendrait finalement au meme"

(CS 67; TS 68) Critiques of woman as "other" in relation

to the male subject and the demand for sexual equality might

serve a consciousness-raising function, but ultimately, she








argues, they do not question the bases of phallogocentric

logic.

Instead of reiterating that the feminine occupies the

negative, devalorized realm in these binary opposition,

Irigaray claims that the dichotomies themselves do not

represent a system of differences. Rather, the second term

mirrors the first and as such seeks to exclude otherness

altogether. The traditional philosophical conception of

"woman" (the "other of the same"), is actually just a

negative mirror image of the masculine, produced and

conditioned through the hidden phallic specular relationship

to the masculine (the "self-same"). Within this

"hom(m)osexual" economy based on a standard of oneness, she

maintains that sexual difference does not yet exist. Both

poles of the binary are actually masculinist constructions

participating in a theatrical mirror game, repressing the

Other, the feminine and the material, in order to fortify

male supremacy. Ofelia Schutte describes the distinction

between the other of the same and Irigaray's Other:

In this tradition, the Other is that which exceeds
and subverts the self, not the Hegelian other who
desires a reciprocity of recognition and who is
ultimately considered a counterpart to the self.
Irigaray uses the term Other in the sense of what
is radically Other and irreducible to the master
consciousness--the excluded, the very marginal,
the unconscious, the excessive, the mysterious,
the superfluous. (50)

To support her argument, Irigaray uncovers how the

operation of philosophical discourse is contingent upon








masked variables that sustain truth claims. These figures

of philosophical discourse include,

la "matirre" don't se nourrit le sujet
parlant pour se produire, se reproduire; la
scdnographie qui rend praticable la representation
telle qu'elle se d&finit en philosophie, c'est-a-
dire l'architectonique de son theatre, son cadrage
de l'espace-temps, son economie g6om6trique, son
ameublement, ses acteurs, leurs positions
respective, leurs dialogues, voire leurs rapports
tragiques, sans oublier le miroir, le plus souvent
masque, qui permet au logos, au sujet, de se
redoubler, de se reflechir, lui-meme. (CS 72-73;
TS 75)

The use of a theatrical trope for exploring representations

demonstrates how philosophical discourse itself is

conditioned. As Timothy Murray notes,

What is theorized or understood as "real" or
"material" or even "historical" remains contingent
on its mise-en-scene, that is, on the means with
which it is represented as well as on the context
of its reception. (Mimesis. Masochism, and Mime 7)

The figure of performance can be viewed as a "third" term

that exceeds the binary paradigms perpetuating repressive

mental structures such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism.

Within this theatrical scenography, through the specular

operation and the conceptualization of matter, sexual

difference is conditioned, produced, and comes to signify--

or as Irigaray claims, does not.' Her thesis is that in

traditional philosophy the concept of matter is excluded

from, yet supports the patriarchal scene. It provides

substance and sustenance for the male subject that enables

his reproduction as the sex that matters. This culturally

and historically mediated scene of representation conditions

(male) subjectivity and sexual indifferencec.








Irigaray argues that the language of the symbolic is

sustained by material elements, and that the feminine has

historically served as this material support. Etymologically

bound to mater and matrix (the mother, the womb), feminine

matter functions as the support or grounding of the system

that upholds male privilege. The nourishing matter outside

the scene of representation is the maternal-feminine; it

provides the foundation of the system, and enables "la

puissance de sa syst&maticite, la force de sa cohesion .

la generalit6 de sa loi" (CS 72; TS 74). Western philosophy,

including feminist discourse, proceeds as if matter lay

outside this scenography instead of taking part in its

formation. Significantly, her argument implies that through

the repression of the maternal-feminine, masked as an appeal

to a higher "truth," phallogocentric logic and the supremacy

of the male subject are maintained. In Irigaray's view,

philosophy's most urgent imperative at this time is to

reveal this aporia through interpretation.

The Mirror and Mimetisme

Irigaray's theory of specular identity formation and

the constitution of sexual difference through language is

indebted to structuralist, psychoanalytic, and post-

structuralist thinking.' In Saussure's concept of linguistic

meaning, there is no inherent link between signifier and

signified, words and reality. He explains how words come to

mean within a symbolic system of language and shows that

signify relationally. Foucault applies this linguistic








structuralist thinking to his conceptualization of social

identity formation. On an individual or group level, he

says, we form our identity only in relation to others,

through dis-identification from them.' This is not to say

that if we dis-identify with the other, we posit the Other's

difference, but rather that the other in this Hegelian

schema, as Schutte says, exists only as a counterpart to the

self. In other words, the specular relation effectively

negates others' difference. This process is linked to the

perception of one's own self-image and psychic boundaries.

If identity is formed through such a hierarchy of

dominance, Foucault argues, there must some relationship

between the two. However, in order to assure the subject's

primacy over the other, this rapport or resemblance and its

accompanying elements of difference must be repressed.

Furthermore, in order to sustain a prevailing ideology, the

means by which social supremacy is attained, and maintained,

must be concealed. As Irigaray says in her description of

the scenography, "Toutes interventions dans la scene qui,

rest6es ininterpr6etes, assurent sa coherence" (CS 73; TS

75). A set of norms dictated by a socially powerful group

serves to screen how that power is attained. With recourse

to norms, social 'laws' are created to dictate the true, the

good and the normal over the false, the bad, and the

abnormal. Through the injunction of these cultural 'laws'

produced within patriarchy, those who do not fall within a

standard of male heterosexuality are subject to forms of








social punishment: rejection, repudiation, and disavowal.

The consequences, Irigaray argues, lead to social and

economic injustice, as well as psychological and physical

injury.

How can this (masculine) logic be exposed? A break with

the patriarchal order, which is supported and sustained by

philosophical theory, is not feasible. One cannot simply

step outside the language of this deep-seated, historically-

laden scene. Instead, Irigaray argues that focusing on the

process of how discourse and cultural systems of

signification mean can reveal flaws in their logic. It is

through representational fissures that she glimpses

possibilities for reconfiguring the symbolic. To contest the

foreclosure of feminine representation and desire within the

specular economy, the figures of philosophical discourse

must be reopened.

C'est bien le discours philosophique qu'il faut
questionner, et deranger, en tant qu'il fait la
loi A tout autre, qu'il constitute le discours des
discours. (CS 72; TS 74)

A feminist critique interested in transforming the

patriarchal system must subvert it from within. It must take

a closer look at the variables in play (matter and the

mirror), and "les faire rejouer, dans chaque figure du

discours, pour le deconcerter a entreprendre de

'd6truire' le fonctionnement discursif" (CS 73; TS 75).

Through her own process of mirroring, which mimes the

phallo-specular relation, Irigaray uncovers the negation and








suppression of both matter and the feminine within the

Western philosophical tradition.

Irigaray's tactic is not simply a repetition of the

self-same in which she seeks to run away with the power of

the dominant group or to reinstitute, for the feminine, the

same sort of oppressive regime. Such a reversal of power

would still operate within the structure dictated by

patriarchal thinking. A whole new idea of woman needs to be

conceptualized, along with new relations to language and to

power, for being a subject in language is a condition for

social subjectivity. As Irigaray, Chawaf, Cixous, and others

have argued since the early 1970s, as long as the concept of

woman is used to construct (man's) language, she has no

access to her own.

Irigaray's subversive textual practice does not seek to

determine what woman is nor to definitively define her, but

rather to understand the system in which a conception of

woman without social subjectivity is reiterated as the norm.

Il fallait, en effet, un discours qui prenne come
enjeu la sexuality meme pour que ce qui
fonctionnait comme condition de possibility du
discours philosophique, de la rationality en
g6enral, se donne A entendre. (CS 162; TS 168)

It would initiate the possibility of thinking woman outside

the realm of the "other of the same." Irigaray's texts pose

the question of the "Other of the Other," which Lacan

proclaims does not exist. For the nonce, she agrees, "La/une

femme fait signe vers l'indefinissable, l'inenumeration .

. nom common indeterminable quant A une identity" (SP, 285;








SPE 230). For now, "La femme 6tayera ce redoublement

speculaire, renvoyant a 1'homme 'son' image, le rdp6tant

come 'm&me'" (SP 63; SPE 54). But keep in mind that

Irigaray's vision of systematicity is dynamic. The exclusion

of woman makes possible the "closure" of philosophical

discourse: it provides the illusion that the system is self-

sustaining. What, Irigaray wonders, would happen to the

specular relation if an other mirror, "un image 'autre,' un

miroir 'autre'" were to intervene in the system (SP 63; SPE

54)? A scenario exposing possible difference within the

order of the self-same would "signifie toujours le risque

d'une crise mortelle" for the existence of the sexually

indifferent, feminine-repudiating logic (SP 63; SPE 54).

How, then, can one begin to unleash this crisis, to

subvert the systematicity at play in the specular theater?

Through a poetics of the body, a strategy of "mim4tisme"

(mimicry, camouflage), which would reveal, Irigaray insists,

a premise that the master philosophers did not explore:

"qu'il pourrait 6ventuellement s'agir d'un meme mais autre

miroir. Miroir concave peut-&tre? Pour refldchir un autre et

meme miroir" (SP 307; SPE 248). A tactical stance true to

the basic tenet of 6criture feminine, Irigaray's mimicry

appropriates the modus operandi of reflection and

replication, but manipulates the tools of the specular to

her own ends. Her strategy of reversal and displacement aims

to transfigure "en affirmation une subordination, et, de ce

fait, commenger a la dejouer" (CS 73-4; TS 76). She enters








the phallogocentric realm through the linguistic doors it

inevitably leaves open, penetrating philosophical discourse

by addressing it on its own terms:

Jouer de la mimesis, c'est donc, pour une femme,
tenter de retrouver le lieu de son exploitation
par le discours, sans s'y laisser simplement
r6duire. C'est se resoumettre -- en tant que du
c8t6 du 'sensible', de la 'matiere' .-- a des
'id6es', notamment d'elle, 6labor6es dans/par une
logique masculine, mais pour faire 'apparaitre',
par un effet de r6p6tition ludique, ce qui devait
rester occult: le recouvrement d'une possible
operation du feminin dans le language. C'est aussi
'd&voiler' le fait que, si les femmes miment si
bien, c'est qu'elles ne se r6sorbent pas
simplement dans cette function. Elles restent
aussi ailleurs: autre insistence de 'matiere',
mais aussi de 'jouissance.' (CS 74; TS 76)

Through a close look at each aspect of this mise-en-

scene, she reexamines

le fonctionnement de la 'grammaire' de chaque
figure du discours, ses lois ou necessit&s
syntaxiques, ses configurations imaginaires, ses
reseaux m6taphoriques et aussi ses silences
(CS 73; TS 75)

in order to demonstrate that the specular system of

reproduction, of mimesis, always already contains the

seeds of its own undoing.

Irigaray's call to textual play is not to be taken

lightly, for the passage from "jouer" to "jouissance" is

simultaneously political and ethical, an interrogation and

an affirmation. Characterized by a series of double lexical

movements, this quotation illustrates the procedure it

describes, relying on equivocal figures of speech in order

to render one definitive reading dubious. "Jouer (de)"

delivers the meanings, both playful and serious, of the act








of mimicry: interpreting, camouflaging, taking advantage of

to one's profit, making fun of, and risking.' Infinitives

and pronominal verbs lead us through the passage ("jouer,"

"tenter de retrouver," "faire apparaitre," "d&voiler," "s'y

laisser," "se resoumettre," "se resorbent") and make an

ethical statement about subjectivity and language. Not bound

to the subject, infinitives are impersonal. Their

positioning slides from and to both subject and object. The

pronominal verbs designate a movement of reciprocity--a

mutual action between two people--as well as a self-

reflexive action. These latter may connote a collective or a

singular that has the value of a plural. What must remain

secret in master philosophical discourse, is "le

recouvrement" of an operation of the feminine: both the

covering over and recovery of feminine matter. In the double

movement of her mimicry, to reveal the covering over is also

to gesture towards the recovery of woman's "jouissance." The

illness is not fatal; the debt and her rights can be

recouped.

Irigaray describes something resistant in the concept

of (feminine) matter that enables a miming subversion unable

to be riveted definitively in place: "elles ne se r6sorbent

pas simplement dans cette function." They do not disappear

altogether in this dissimulation. Rather, this "rdsorption"

can be likened to passage through a mucus membrane that

Irigaray theorizes as the middle-passive, a place of

threshold allowing free-flowing entrance or exit. The








middle-passive can be understood in relation to her concept

of the interval or envelope: an elasticity through which two

beings encounter each other as subjects. The contiguous

meanings, like two individuals in a relation of generous,

non-selfish desire, lead to "jouissance" in all senses of

the term: as sexual pleasure, as active participation ("se

servir de quelque chose"), and as attainment of legal rights

(becoming "titulaire").

To re-explore the site of woman's exploitation, to

probe the dark continent of the repressed feminine, Irigaray

penetrates the threshold of the scene of representation with

another mimetic tool: a speculum. The term speculum, linked

etymologically to sight ("specere"), designates an

instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection, most

often for gynecological examinations. What more appropriate

tool could a feminist practice use for the exploration of

passages of the body, both material and textual, and sexual

difference? Playing on the difference of this exploratory

instrument designed for the female genitals allows her to

look at representation from a previously obscured feminine

perspective.

With her passage-opening speculum, a trope for

critically rereading theory--and copy of the Self-same

mirror with a sexual difference--Irigaray mimes foundational

philosophical texts. Reiterating the words of the masters,

she effects subtle subversions in their discourse. Through

this mode of introducing anotherr voice into texts, she








puts into question sometimes explicitly, sometimes

implicitly, the "fonctionnement discursif": the system of

metaphor that allows the substitution of the masculine for

the feminine, and the repression of the maternal-feminine.

Tracing how the system of thought was constructed in

order to expose the gaps of both metaphor and concept, she

deconstructs philosophical texts through their own logic. In

doing so, she reveals the paradoxical moves made that give

their arguments the appearance of cohesion. Although this

poetics, "a mimicry that undermines the referent's

authority," echoes modernist gestures toward the non-

referentiality of language," hers is one with a feminine

difference (Diamond 62). Instead of replacing the

masculine/male with feminine/female bias, she reveals these

binary concepts to be postures.

Rereading Plato

For exposing sexual indifference and initiating a

process of cultural and linguistic transformation, Irigaray

cites Plato's myth of the cave as a good point of departure.

"L'hystera de Platon," the last essay in Speculum, returns

to the most fundamental of western philosophy's beginnings

in order to explore the question of sexual indifferencec.

In Book 7 of The Republic, Plato's parable approaches

epistemological questions of primary concern to Irigaray:

What things are real? What constitutes their reality? How

can we know? How do we know we know? Her rereading

demonstrates how Plato's myth does not simply seek knowledge








about what is "real," but his text actually operates

performatively, producing and conditioning a "reality" that

excludes matter and the maternal-feminine in order to serve

his own ends. Through repetition that magnifies the elements

constituting the cave-womb scene, Irigaray highlights the

stakes involved in Plato's metaphorical representation:

Dilemme, oscillation, indecision, don't on ne
sortira pas sans interpreter l'inter&t, les
int&rets, en jeu. A qui, a quoi, profitent les
credits investis dans l'efficace d'une telle
m6taphoricite, dans de tels quadrillages et
definitions des pions du jeu, dans l'attribution
de ces critrres differentiels aux pieces de
l'chiquier, dans cette hidrarchie de valeurs
comme enjeu, regles, et solde de la parties. (SP
335; SPE 269-70)

Plato constructs an elaborate scene, which he likens to

a theater, in order to illustrate the difference between

true and false representations. Thus he sets the stage for

dichotomous illusion. In describing the production of Forms,

he creates a metaphorical system for differentiating between

the good/true/real and the bad/false/illusory. The Form, in

referring both to species and shape, is central to

Irigaray's broader concerns of legitimacy and exclusion:

what is valued as human and how it accrues value--through

morphology--both of the body and of language. Announcing her

argument in the title "Plato's Hystera," Irigaray

establishes from the outset that the cave-world at the basis

of Plato's metaphor is actually the womb robbed of its

reproductive function. His scenario offers up a "tentative

de metaphorisation, proces de d6tournement, qui prescrit,








silencieusement, la metaphysique occidentale," that requires

that the womb-mother-earth be forgotten, erased, and left

behind in a quest for Truth and Knowledge (SP 301; SPE 243).

While purported to represent the feminine, the matter that

figures within his scene is conditioned by phallic logic.

Irigaray points out that there is a second, "inarticulate"

matter covered over by Plato's specular feminine, "the Other

of the Other." As Butler says, this matter "designates the

constitutive outside of the Platonic economy; it is what

must be excluded for that economy to posture as internally

coherent" (BTM 151).1 The patriarchal world/scene of

representation founds the sexual indifference reflected in

model-copy mimesis and sustained by the operation of the

mirror that Irigaray traces to the psychoanalytic discourse

on sexuality.

Within this representation the inhabitants live in a

cave-womb of the earth, chained to their places, facing

forward, "6tant immobilis&s par l'impossibilit de se

retourner, ou retourner, vers l'origine, vers l'hystera" (SP

303; SPE 245). They view a stage where statues illuminated

by a fire from behind cast shadows upon the backdrop, the

screen of the theater. Chained as they are, they do not see

that their perspective is only partial. Although the

prisoners only see one dim light, one set of images and

shadows, only hear one set of accompanying voices, each

aspect of Plato's cave is doubled in a larger realm, the

world, and further in the world of Ideas. As Irigaray points








out, in this "caverne ou 'monde' tout ne serait

qu'images d'images" (SP 305; SPE 246). Plato draws analogies

first between these first and second realms, then between

the second and third. Each set of copies, doublings, and

substitutions visually perceivable is hierarchically ordered

and more highly valued as it moves from the earth-mother-

cave to the realm of Ideas. For Plato, each form produced is

a copy of an unknowable Ideal Form--an a priori origin

outside knowledge. The Ideal is one of a kind, self-

identical, the pure model for its copies that are individual

things (bodies, actions, shapes, and objects). It sets the

normative standard against which all copies can be measured

but is itself exempt from interrogation. This system of

analogy and of substitution, is also one of estimated worth.

Copies have more or less value based on their position in

the analogy chain that leads to Truth, Reality, and

Knowledge. The closer that copies resemble the Ideal Form,

the better, the truer, the more real they are.

Plato's system of likeness sustains its illusion "par

une alternance regl6e de r6pliques ou les interference et

bruits du fond de l'entretien sont d'entrie de jeu reduit"

(SP 258-9). Through her amplifying mime, Irigaray attempts

to displace the authority of Plato's word by turning up the

volume--magnifying the ideal of truth underlying and

legitimating his metaphors,

figures, qui representeront 1'intervention des
femmes, sans voix, sans presence. Feminin,
maternel, d'embl6e glacEs par le 'comme', le
'comme si' de cette representation, masculine,








domin&e par la resemblance, l'identit&. (SP
329; SPE 265)

Her mimicry gives voice to silenced material and sensible

background elements, lends an ear to barely perceptible

sounds, and fleshes out the tactile.

Plato's analogies conceal the fact that all the copies

and images rely on a material support (the projection screen

of the cave, the water reflecting men and objects, the veil

barring passage to the world of Ideas). Through metaphor

Plato's argument progresses away from the archetypally

feminine supports of mirror, water, and veil and bars

passage to them: "passage oblitere entire le dehors et le

dedans, le haut et le bas, l'intelligible et le sensible

Le 'pare' et la 'mere' (SP 431; SPE ). As Irigaray

demonstrates, Plato, the mother's child, "est en train de

depouiller les membranes par trop mat6rielles, les heritages

par trop physiques" (SP 397-98; SP 318). Once in the world

of Ideas, the eyes that facilitate sight/knowledge are no

longer attributed to the body but to the soul. The movement

from the body-mother-earth to the mind-father-soul

corresponds to a progression from illusion to Truth,

illusory copy to true original, the sensible to the

intelligible. Chained and unable to move about, the common

man lives in a world associated with matter, while the

proper philosopher would be the man capable of exiting the

dangerous cave-womb and proceeding toward the blinding light

of the Ideal/Truth/Reason. The philosopher's ascent towards

intelligibilty requires leaving behind the material place of








his origination. At his final destination, Plato manages to

conceal the connections between his world of the mind and

the realm of the senses.

Plato himself employs a familial metaphor to describe

the scenario. In keeping with his logic, the mother should

participate in reproduction. Yet, he renders her powerless,

depriving her of contribution to the production of forms.

She figures only as the receptacle for its enactment. He

places

a prohibition on resemblance (mimeta), which is to
say that [in Plato's text] this nature cannot be
said to be like either the eternal Forms or their
material, sensible, or imaginary copies. (BTM 153)

It is Plato's paradoxical use of metaphor prohibiting

resemblance that produces the nonspecular feminine as the

outlawed element and makes possible a scene of

representation based on likeness. "A whole system of

kinship--that is, in this case, of analogy--makes contact

between them impractical. The economy of metaphor that is in

control keeps them apart" (SP 346). And yet Irigaray shows

clearly that Plato's metaphor is catachrestic; it strips the

mother of the reproductive power to create a form/copy that

would resemble her. Neither form nor copy, she has no status

in ontology; hers is a "nonthematizable materiality" which

cannot be said to exist at all.

Despite Plato's attempts to strip the feminine of its

power, Irigaray maintains that what is repressed in a

symbolic systems "regit-il, sans (r)appel, le texte meme qui

maintient sa prohibition" (SP 314; SPE 253). Philosophy as








we know it cannot proceed without excluding the feminine

from the form/matter binary. To understand this, "Il suffit

d'en questionner la surdetermination. De d&masquer les

figures, formes, signes, qui assurent sa coherence pr6sente"

(SP 314; SPE 253). By exposing the concealed elements of

Plato's scene, Irigaray's light reveals a passage forgotten

by Plato, the "forgotten vagina." Playing on the homophony

of entire and "antre," she argues that this passage is what

enables movement between worlds, "cet entire deux 'mondes',

modes"--the specular and excessive feminines" (SP 305; SPE

246). With a fuller view of the cave-world, the captive

philosopher would be overtaken by vertigo. Spinning, senses

reeling, losing perspective "de ce retournement," he will no

longer be able to reconcile his two points of view (SP 335;

SPE 256). But the philosopher able to unchain himself and

move towards the light-knowledge is not subject in Plato's

world to such a destabilizing, doubly visual effect of the

cave-womb-mother. Instead, he masters disorder through

relations of likeness. Irigaray's mimicry reveals that

Toute une conception s'arr6te 1~[ ]sur--
1'illusion d'une m6taphorique propre, d'une
mdtametaphorique, postulde par la pres6ance de la
v6ritg qui decide, par advance, du ddroulement de
l'entretien, des inter-ventions. (SP 325; SPE 261-
62)

Irigaray's rereading triggers a sort of Gestalt shift

in perception that would reveal how Plato's metaphor depends

on the suppression of the maternal-feminine. For example,

just as some elements of the cave are visible while others

are invisible, some inhabitants of Plato's cave speak while








others are prohibited from doing so. Absent and silent

elements function as the reflecting screen necessary for the

reproduction of the same. The coherence of his argument

necessitates silence, "car si tous parlaient, parlaient en

meme temps, le bruit de fond rendrait difficile, sinon

impossible, ce proces de redoublement que constitute l'6cho"

(SP 318; SPE 257). To create a quiet backdrop for the words

of the selected few, the multiplicity of voices must be

reduced. Moreover, in order to mask his omissions and to

sustain his narrative as being logical, Plato posits the

silence of the background elements of the scenography as

neutral. "Qui soutiennent la fiction de terms propres a

chaque un, et A chaque chose, susceptibles d'etre reproduits

comme tels (SP 319; SPE 257). Discourse, as Irigaray shows

through her critique of Freud and Plato, does not merely

reflect reality or describe how things are, but instead

performs the illusion that they are only one way. Miming

Plato's text, rendering visible the invisible, Irigaray

offers momentary glimpses beyond the borders which enclose

his thought and which prohibit a feminine operation within

language. Despite his attempts to control metaphor, the

maternal-feminine cannot be fully foreclosed.

Rereading Freud

While Freud set out to uncover the nature of sexuality

by way of language, Irigaray criticizes his approach in the

first essay in Speculum, "La T&che aveugle d'un vieux r&ve

de symetrie." She draws attention to what she considers the








"blind spot" in his theoretical "dream of symmetry": the

phallic specular relation operating within his theory.

Irigaray demonstrates Freud's admission that his

understanding of sexuality derives from "une prescription du

psychique par l'anatomique selon 1'ordre de la mimesis," a

metaphorical one-to-one relation between sexual organisms

(sperm/ovum) and sexual beings (male/female) (SP 15; SPE

12). Based on unitary logic, Freud's version of mimesis

refers to the model-copy variety that posits "a truthful

relation between world and word, model and copy, nature and

image, or, in semiotic terms, referent and sign" (Diamond

58). Within such a paradigm, sameness masks potential

difference.

Instead of uncovering the nature of sexuality, the

reiterated results of his case studies (women most often

being his objects of inquiry, Irigaray ironically notes)

actually

donne a voir ce qui jusqu'alors pouvait
functionner tout en restant implicite, occult,
meconnu: l'indifference sexuelle don't se soutient
la v6rit6 de toute science, la logique de tout
discours. (CS 67; TS 67)

His interpretations repeat the age-old metaphysical scenario

begun with Plato and offer a version of sexuality based on

phallic parameters. For instance, when it came to theorizing

woman, he could only conceive of her as a man minus the

penis, castrated, a deformed copy of himself, "thereby

demonstrating the truth of his own centrality" (Diamond 59).

Lacking a penis, she is deprived of her subjectivity, as








well as the possibility of self-representation. If that were

not enough, Freud's concept of penis envy pushed her state

of lack even further, to lock her into a position of futile

desire. She serves as a tool, a mirror, propping up his

desire, facilitating his subjectivity. Instrumental in this

specular relation but without subjectivity, she, or rather

her envy, fleshes out his mirror reflection, "making her

look like a male looking at himself" (Diamond 63). "Son lot

serait celui du manquede, de 'l'atrophie' (du sexe), et de

'l'envie du p6nis' comme seul sexe reconnu valeureux" (CS

23; TS 23). Freud speaks of the child's phallic stage, but

no vulvar, vaginal, or uterine stage figures in his schema.

Each of these moves illustrates the foreclosure in Western

thought of the possibility of representing feminine

difference and female desire. Covering over woman's sexual

specificity enables Freud to posit the psychosexual standard

as male. As Irigaray sees it, Freudian theories of subject

formation require the negation, repression, and repudiation

of the vaginal, the uterine, and the vulvar.

Although she does credit him with uncovering a certain

logic of presence, he was unable to analyze the conditions

of the production of his own discourse on sexual difference:

Autrement dit, les questions que la pratique et la
theorie de Freud posent A la scene de la
representation ne vont pas jusqu'a celle de la
determination sexude de cette scene. (CS 71; TS
71)

His "blind spot" vis-a-vis these conditions enabled him to

demonstrate the "truth" of his own model of psychological








behavior. Freud is not alone in his lack of foresight

Irigaray emphasizes. Failure to question the sexual

determination of the scene of representation is a phenomenon

endemic to a broader metaphysical trend in Western thought.

Irigaray, mimicking Freud quoting Napoleon, asserts that

"l'anatomie, c'est le destin" (CS 70; TS 70). Her brilliant

re-citation enables her both to engage Freud's text and to

put into question the veracity of his affirmation in support

his own theory:

autre 'symptime' de l'appartenance du discours de
Freud a une tradition non analysee: le mode de
recours a l'anatomique come critere irrefutable
de v6rit6. (CS 69; TS 70-71)

Through Irigaray's "psychoanalysis" of Freud, she

demonstrates how his theory of sexual difference depends on

a model of anatomical a priori sameness clearly reflected in

his "mode d'emploi" of symmetry, analogy, comparison, and

binary oppositions--figures of speech which efface

difference and relations of contiguity. Psychoanalytically

speaking, these relations of closeness represent the

unstable divide between the bodies of mother and infant

that, as Butler says, "reemerge in language as the metonymic

proximity of signs" and risk to decenter phallogocentric

metaphorical unity (BTM 46).

When viewed in light of the castration complex, Freud's

scenario initiates fear and repulsion of the feminine in

both men and women.

La fille se detourne de sa mere, la 'hait' parce
qu'elle s'apergoit que celle-ci n'a pas le sexe
valeureux qu'elle lui supposait; ce rejet de la








mere s'accompagne de celui de toute femme, elle-
meme comprise. (CS 68; TS 69)

Citing Freud's own words, Irigaray reiterates the "law" that

dictates that woman's lack of a penis determines man's

"'dIpreciation de la femme horreur de ces creatures

mutilees ou m6pris triomphant & leur dgard'" or at the very

least, a disparaging attitude toward women (CS 69; TS 69).

The little girl, as Freud says, "'se d6tourne de sa mare,'

'qu'elle devalorise toutes les femmes' a l'egal d'elle-meme

parce que depourvues de penis" (CS 69; TS 69). But Irigaray

ironically implies here that the problem lies not in the

fact that women are penis-less but in the cultural taboo of

identity with the mother, apparent in women's psychological

rejection of her mother, herself, and other women. Marking

the feminine body as an illegitimate version of the

masculine body, a flawed copy, creates a looming, prohibited

feminine, a threat to manhood that reinforces the imperative

of subjecting oneself to cultural law.

As a result, historically, Western thought provides an

account of the social order that forbids encounter with the

maternal-feminine and forecloses "woman" as a viable

subject. Irigaray's rereading of Freud argues that woman is

only the fetish of representation, deprived of

representation as Subject: "la femme, dans cet imaginaire

sexuel, n'est que support a la mise en acte des

fantasmes de l'homme" (CS 25; TS 25). Ontologically, she

simply has no status within this "indifferent" economy.








Going back through sexual difference, "the staging" of

matter is the first step in undermining the stability of

what we know as sexual difference (BTM 52).

Cet ailleurs de la jouissance de la femme ne se
retrouve qu'au prix d'une retraversee du miroir
qui sous-tend toute speculation. Ne se situant
simplement ni dans un proces de reflexion ou de
mimetisme mais renvoyant toutes ces
categories et coupures aux necessites de l'auto-
repr6sentation du desir phallique dans le
discours. (CS 75; TS 77)

Resubjecting herself to mimesis and matter in order to

disrupt the specular foreclosure of the feminine in her

famous essay "Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un," Irigaray mimes

Freud's use of metaphor by juxtaposing a catachrestic plural

morphological figure to that of phallic oneness." Defined

in the Petit Robert, a catachresis is a figure of rhetoric

that "consiste A detourner un mot de son sens propre." It is

a metaphor that denotes the inappropriate use of a proper

term to describe what cannot be properly named within a

symbolic system. "Detourner" also suggests "soustraire A son

profit, voler," and links up with Cixous's description of

6criture feminine:

Voler, c'est le geste de la femme, voler dans la
langue, la faire voler. Du vol, nous avons toutes
appris 1'art aux maintes techniques, depuis des
siecles, que nous n'avons aces a l'avoir qu'en
volant; que nous avons v6cu dans un vol, de voler,
trouvant au desir des passages 6troits, derobes,
traversants. Ce n'est pas un hasard si 'voler' se
joue entire deux vols, jouissant de l'un et de
l'autre et deroutant les agents du sens. Ce n'est
pas un hasard: la femme tient de l'oiseau et du
voleur come le voleur tient de la femme et de
l'oiseau: illes passent, illes filent, illes
jouissent de brouiller l'ordre de l'espace, de le
desorienter, de changer de place les meubles, les
choses, les valeurs, de faire des cases, de vider








les structures, de chambouler le propre" ("Rire"
49).

Irigaray fleshes out a specifically sexed feminine metaphor,

of two lips, turning the site of her exclusion--sexed

morphology--into an affirmation. She proposes this vulvar

counterpart by deliberately stepping into the materially-

laden role historically associated with women. She does so

not with pretensions of declaring the "truth," but to show

instability in the system that classifies "sex." Irigaray's

"vulvomorphic" logic reveals the performative function of

language to produce, from a linguistic conceptualization,

the "reality" that it names. As Jane Gallop points out,

"phallomorphic logic is not based in anatomy but, on the

contrary, reconstructs anatomy in its own image" (78). It is

in this light that we can understand Irigaray's metaphor,

not as a faithful representation of nature, but as a poesis

as Gallop says, a process of creating woman's sex

transgressive of the phallomorphic law operating on an

unconscious level and therefore divorced from its historical

beginnings. Excessive and non-normative, her lips trope is

"not predestined by anatomy but is already a symbolic

interpretation of that anatomy" (Gallop 78). Through

imitation, it offers a reflection on the mimetic structure

that objectifies the other through the visual. Human bodies,

down to their anatomical aspects, vary, but they are often

conceptualized as being of one type, usually male. Moira

Gatens points out in Imaginary Bodies that portrayals of

whole female bodies are often absent in anatomy textbooks.








They include only sketches of what is lacking, the female

reproductive system for example, in the prototype. Outside

the mode of expression of philosophy proper, Irigaray's lips

function catachrestically. Neither vaginal nor clitoral,

they form an unsanctioned, improper symbolic figure without

a "nom 'propre'." Irigaray reproduces an image of female

sexuality counter to the ideal morphological standard--and

also parodies, self-consciously, the exclusions inherent in

the formation of phallic imagery.

There is no "propre" for the feminine deprived of

subjectivity Irigaray argues. For now, she can only be

glimpsed as the disturbance within it. The only tactic

available to her is the embezzlement and reappropriation of

roles, images, and stereotypes assigned to her. She steals

the techniques of phallogocentric logic and uses them

against it to uncover its sexed nature. At the same time,

her irreverent operation, her "vol," flies "elsewhere," and

keeps from being reduced to singularity and leads to

recognition of the repressed difference already within

phallogocentric logic. The operation of mimicry is not

reabsorbed into the repetitive function of sameness: it

points to meaning "outside" the system by miming, by

exposing what the linguistic signifier "n'articule pas dans

l'enonc6: ses silences" (CS 73, TS 75). The goal of mimicry

is to enact a self-same repetition but through a poesis that

repeats it differently. True to the art of the mime,

Irigaray makes visible what is invisible through the medium








of the body. Excessively charged with materiality, her image

exposes a vacant, constructed character inherent in

discourses on sexuality that reveals how bodies never quite

conform to the norms into which they are interpellated. Her

construction of a feminine metaphor is not essentialist for,

as Elizabeth Berg says, she "is obliged to advance some

image of woman if only to hold open this blank space." The

images she proposes "of fluids, caves, etc.--are empty ones"

subject to infinite deferral (17).

Playing with mimesis in such a way means to "tenter de

retrouver le lieu de son exploitation par le discours"

without allowing oneself to be reduced to exploitation and

silence (CS 74; TS 76). Irigaray's lips metaphor slips out

and flies free, if only for an instant, from symbolic

constraints." Indeed, her figure is not meant to determine

a fixed concept of female sexuality. Rather, it is a

symbolic representation that exceeds dualities. Constantly

moving back and forth between the lips and multiple points

of contact, this feminine pleasure "d'au moins deux levres"

exceeds the law of sameness (CS 73; TS 26). Its multiplicity

troubles the phallogocentric logic of one-to-one

equivalence. If her jouissance is so plural, it cannot be

easily controlled, reduced, and assimilated into oneness.

Butler understands Irigaray's multiple lips as a repetition

of the violation of that reduces woman to materiality, but

she claims that these

repetitions of hegemonic forms of power fail
to repeat loyally and, in that failure, open








possibilities for resignifying the terms of
violation against their violating aims. (BTM 124)

Irigaray's excessively material configuration of the anatomy

disrupts the image of woman as man's negative. Uncovering

the plurality of possible representations within the phallic

scene of representation risks to jam the workings of the

machinery of sameness. Once introduced into the system, the

catachrestic feminine figure reveals the logic of

phallocentrism's impotence to determine the meaning of its

terms. Through this nontraditional metaphor, she points

toward the possibility of a third course, gesturing toward

an "Other of the Other" covered over by phallic logic. As

Berg notes, she does so "by fixing her gaze on the support

itself: focusing resolutely on the blank spaces of masculine

representation, and revealing their disruptive power" (17).

Irigaray describes her process of "mimetisme" as

"hysterical miming," as the woman's attempt to save her

sexuality from complete repression. Hysterical laughter is

always at least double. Whereas laughter should signify joy,

hysterical laughter is paradoxical and improper. Hollow, it

resounds like an echo in an empty house. Listening closely,

one can hear the silences within it. Nevertheless, at the

same time this tactic is liberating. By exposing the threat

of psychological and physical harm inherent in subject

formation based on negative disavowal, it reveals the

boundaries of the subject to be more shifting than imagined.

In fact, for Irigaray the hysterical figure is a

catachrestic one: she is inside the symbolic realm but








exceeds its figuration of her. The illusion that the

boundaries of subjects are fixed could not be sustained

without the social prohibition of feminine specificity. For

both Irigaray and Chawaf, this taboo produces a cultural

aversion toward the feminine. By appropriating hysteria,

which Freud claims is proper to woman, such excessive

performances of feminine sexuality symbolically embrace the

risk that threatens a subject's boundaries.

Some of Irigaray's critics argue that her mimicry

relegates woman to a place where she is permanently deprived

of a voice. However, true to the flowing, ephemeral art of

mime, the blank space exposed through Irigaray's mimicry

is, clearly, no place between 'his' language and
'hers,' but only a disruptive movement which
unsettles the topographical claim a taking
of his place, not to assume it, but to show that
it is occupiable, to raise the question of the
cost and movement of that assumption. (BTM 36)

Philosophical discourse will continue to deprive women of

the value of their sex, Irigaray claims, as long as "on ne

sache pas pourquoi, par qui, et que cela soit port& au

compete de la 'Nature'" (CS 70; TS 71). Exposing the threat

of the loss of the self's integrity through hysterical

mimicry, she explores what Butler calls the "zones of

inhabitability" which a subject fantasizes to be threatening

its own integrity (BTM 243). Valorising the masculine over

the feminine serves to shore up the dominance of the

phallogo-centric order, to empower one group at the expense

of the other.








Irigaray's tactical mimicry shakes up the foundations

of marginalization on which the edifice of patriarchy is

built by exposing the metaphorical structure inherent in the

production of form and matter. It challenges the systematic

exclusion of what is outside conventional representational

systems--different relations of and within signification--

and attempts to open up a passageway to what has been

repressed: the flesh, the material, the maternal-feminine.

Exposing such referential instability is enabling for

feminist discourse. It implies that neither the

phallogocentric thinking nor the grammar supporting and

conditioning it are closed systems; they contain the

elements for their own undoing. The feminine exclusion that

she isolates is neither a permanent nor immutable state, for

it is produced performatively through an unstable system of

referentiality. Psychoanalytically speaking, recognizing the

repressed origin could unblock the erasure of the maternal-

feminine and allow new relations between the self and the

other to begin. A system of sexual difference which

recognizes woman's sexual specificity, instead of

assimilating her into masculine sameness, would be the means

for putting into question the domination of masculine over

feminine, as well as self-destructive rivalry among women.

Conceptualizing sexual difference in a different economy of

language would be a first step towards change in the human

condition, both female and male.








For Irigaray, such a return of the maternal-feminine

figures only in the conditional mode for it has yet to come

into being. Provisional tactics, such as Irigaray's mimicry,

are for her the first step towards not only female

subjectivity, but subjectivity for all bodies that do not

comply with the heterosexual masculine norm. Using

Irigaray's rereading of Plato as a point of departure,

Butler examines the conditions of the production of the

concept of matter. She traces, and problematizes, the ways

in which sexual difference functions in philosophical

discourse.

Gender Performativity

Since the inception of 6criture feminine in the 1970s,

critics have dismissed the symbolic-altering potential of

this practice as utopian. However, in light of Judith

Butler's theory of the performativity of gender and its link

to bodily materiality, we can now envision the possibility

of "a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon,"

possible through the repetition of subversive mimetic acts

such as mimicry (23).'5 She engages with the western

philosophical tradition in an Irigarayian manner. That is to

say that she explores the conditions of the production of

discourse in order to understand how sexed bodies

materialize. For Butler as for Irigaray, the matter of

bodies encompasses the material, the discursive, and the

ethical: how bodies take form or appear and how they








signify, as well as "which bodies come to matter and why"

(BTM xii).

Since Simone de Beauvoir's classic formulation in Le

Deuxieme Sexe, "on ne nait pas femme, on le devient,"

feminist theory has relied on dichotomous thinking with the

sex/gender binary at its base (477). To account for

differences among women yet retaining their common bond, sex

was posited as the natural, biological given and gender as a

social supplement to sex, artificially added through

interaction with the world. Debates have since revolved

around two camps of thought: one that argues the primacy of

sex over gender, and the other, gender over sex. The theory

of social constructionism tends to privilege gender over sex

on the grounds that sex is an appeal to the "natural." Yet

Butler identifies a problem with an espousal of this theory

as it is currently formulated.

Paradoxically, in social constructionism's seeming

rejection of the notion of sex as a foundation, it

reiterates that very idea: sex is seen as the solid ground

to which the social is added. As Irigaray makes clear in "La

Tache aveugle d'un vieux rave de symitrie," Beauvoir's

formulation of gender derives from Freud's discourse on

femininity (SP 19; SPE 21). In terms similar to those of

Beauvoir he states, "psycho-analysis does not try to

describe what a woman is but sets about inquiring how

she comes into being" ("Femininity" 116). Beauvoir's re-

citation of Freud is significant, for Irigaray suggests that








feminist thinking uses his criteria uncritically: the

sex/gender dichotomy reiterates phallo-logic. In other

words, social construction reifies the notion of sex as the

solid ground of identity. Articulating a theory of the

feminine on the grounds of a body supposedly outside culture

is problematic, especially as Irigaray argues, when it is a

notion of the body articulated within a misogynistic

tradition, one that constitutes a structural position of

exclusion.

Constructivism suggests that a social force exists

which operates outside the scene of construction as an a

priori, investing the social with "a culture or agency .

which acts upon nature" (BTM 6). This way of thinking

implies that social agency remains outside human action.

Problematically casting aside bodily experience, the body

appears only as an effect of language, and the concept of

sex as a phantasy. Seeking to overcome the impasse vis-a-vis

the social problems of marginalization and abjection, Butler

shifts the focus of feminist philosophy from essentialism

versus constructivism to

the more complex questions of how "deep-seated" or
constitutive constraints can be posed in terms of
symbolic limits in their intractability and
contestability. (94)

The matter of "sex," the site of bodily oppression, is not

static. Butler points out that in Greek ontology matter was

a creative principle and had the power to originate. Yet

this idea is lost in Cartesian philosophy. Focusing on the

question of how sexual material difference functions with








respect to discursive practices, Butler's theory of gender

performativity aims to displace the stability of the

sex/gender dichotomy. To rethink the form/matter split in a

modern political context by interrogating the degree to

which the concept of form is historically produced, Butler

draws from Irigaray's reading of Plato and Foucault's

historical analysis of the interconnections of form and

matter." The following discussion traces Butler's

examination of the categories of sex and gender through an

optic of linguistic speech acts, structuralist and post-

structuralist philosophy, and psychoanalytic thinking.

One of the ways bodies materialize is through

discourse, Butler asserts, namely through performative

citational practices. Her theory of gender performativity

reconfigures J.L. Austin's concept of performative speech

acts elaborated in How To Do Things With Words. As opposed

to constative or descriptive statements, performatives are

neither "true" nor "false." Instead this class of statements

describes discursive moments when saying is doing, or, to

paraphrase Austin, when saying can make it so. Austin

outlines several requirements for these speech acts: his

rules illustrate how highly regulated speech acts must be

reiterated seriously in order to operate correctly.'

Performatives may either fail or succeed, depending on both

the speaker's and the receiver's compliance with

convention." A performative even masquerades as a statement

of fact, Austin declares, "when it assumes its most explicit








form," which is to say, as a type of authoritative speech

(4)." All philosophical constatives, according to Butler,

operate as performatives. Although they are neither "true"

nor "false," they masquerade as descriptions of "reality"

through the reiterated invocation of authority. This

masquerade involves the illusion that a statement's meaning

remains singular and constant through space and over time.

As Irigaray would say, it gives rise to the deception that

there is no meta-metaphor.

Austin's seminal work on performatives has led to

important critical insights into "how contingent and

radically heterogeneous--how contestable" the relationship

is between a subject and an utterance (Parker & Sedgwick

14). This contingency applies to the interlocutor, the

audience, and the locution of the performative act. Austin's

claim that "actions can only be performed by persons, and

obviously in our cases the utterer must be the performer,"

shows how he privileged the subject's agency over other

factors that constrain individuals, such as relations of

power (60). Butler's gender performativity, on the other

hand, questions an individual's ability to bring about the

intended action. Understanding the performance of gender as

a simple action effected through a subject's choice

oversimplifies this process. As Butler explains, a subject

cannot choose to don a gender as she chooses to put on

either a dress or pants at the start of the day. Instead of

subscribing to the performativity of gender centered around








the subject "as the act by which a subject brings into being

what she/he names," she emphasizes the role of discourse in

producing "the phenomena that it regulates and constrains"

(BTM 2). The function of discourse in this process provides

the link between the performativity of gender and the

materiality of sex, where materiality signifies how bodies

take form or appear and how they signify.

Like Irigaray, Butler argues that the materiality of

"sex" is not unproblematically a bodily given; it is

conditioned by the form/matter dichotomy and by the

psychical body image. "Sex" does not simply receive cultural

gender constructions, but serves as an Ideal produced

through the reiteration of cultural norms. This reiteration

is a type of performativity that dictates how bodies

materialize.

Materialization is a complex discursive process over

time, Butler contends, an effect of power in the Foucauldian

sense. Just as Irigaray demonstrated that matter is not

passive but has been deceivingly conceptualized as such,

Foucault shows how form is historically produced, "from one

moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every

relation from one point to another .. it comes from

everywhere" (HS 93). In an abstract way, materialization

emerges through "ceaseless struggles and confrontations" at

the nexus of various cultural and discursive practices (93).

When conceived as outside discourse and power, form can be

used as a tool of (oppressive) power. Discursive acts,








Butler shows, are part of the process of diffuse power that

produces boundaries of texts and bodies.20 Through the

operation of "citation" which reinstalls normative

boundaries, the body's boundaries appear completely stable

instead of being repeatedly put into question. She uses

citation in Derrida's sense of citationality, "in which the

naming in discourse of an 'object' by a particular subject

is a 'citation' of an already existing discursive norm"

(Cotter 228). The invocation of normative gender constraints

is a ritualized procedure that not only "sets a limit to

performativity" but also "impels and sustains

performativity" (BTM 95).

Butler chooses a juridical metaphor in elaborating her

argument. To illustrate the role of regulation and citation

within the symbolic order, she compares the process of

identity formation to the formation of laws within the

American legal institution. Although a judge appears to be

invested with the power to create law, Butler reminds us

that the sanction does not rest in his person as such.

Rather, he can "originate" law only by subscribing to and

citing statute. Bound to the legal conventions preceding

him, any law he appears to initiate is actually a

reconstitution of prior law. As a certain law is cited over

and over in time and across space, it accrues authority.

Through an "echo chain of their own reinvocation," laws are

invested with a binding power which the judge, as appointed

guardian of the legal process, serves to perpetuate.








Discrete acts of gender performance operate similarly

through this echo chain.

What compels gender performativity? Instead of viewing

the formation of the sexed subject as largely developmental

in Freudian or Lacanian schemas, Butler suggests that

subject formation can be understood as an effect of power

that both generates and constrains "sex and a sexed position

within language" (95). There is no subject prior to the

reiterated performance of gender norms, she contends.

Rather, "an echo-chain of their own reinvocation" as subject

enables subjects to come into being (107). Following

Althusser, she argues that one can accede to the status of

subject only through a prior interpellation into this

position: "I can only say 'I' to the extent that I have

first been addressed, and that address has mobilized my

place in speech" (225). This interpellation begins at birth

when the doctor, invested with the authority to do so,

pronounces an infant's sex through the performative "It's a

girl!" Reiterated and reinforced through one's life, the

process of sexing "is at once the setting of a boundary, and

also the repeated inculcation of a norm" (8). Subjects do

not emerge prior to their recognition; instead, it is the

recognition as a viable subject that materializes the

subject.

From this perspective, Irigaray's insistence on mimicry

as a strategy for agency becomes more clear. Exposing how

woman's sexual specificity has been repressed in western








philosophy and psychoanalysis through mimicry reveals the

prior existence of the feminine, albeit an obscured one. At

present, she claims, woman's sexual difference can only be

glimpsed with recourse to the language strategy of mimicry.

In light of Butler's theory of dynamic identity

formation, "sex" can be seen as an "ideal construct," as

Irigaray's lips-figure illustrates, a "regulatory ideal"

dictated by symbolic law which, over time and through a

network of regulated discursive practices, has the power to

"produce--demarcate, circulate, differentiate--the bodies it

controls" (1). Although the force of this ideal appears to

exist prior to philosophical and psychoanalytic discourses

on sexuality, she maintains that these discourses actually

operate performatively, setting limits in advance on sexual

identification and simultaneously reproducing these limits

as normative in order to shore up the authority of their own

claims. Performative theory demonstrates, according to

Francois Lyotard, that the

limits the institution imposes on potential
language 'moves' are never established once and
for all (even if they have been formally defined).
Rather, the limits are themselves the stakes and
provisional results of language strategies, within
the institution and without. (17)

From Butler's perspective, relations of discourse and power

are more fluid than prior theories have acknowledged.

Through her rereading of Freud's and Lacan's language

'moves,' Butler recasts the symbolic "as a series of

normativizing injunctions that secure the borders of sex

through the threat of psychosis, abjection, psychic








unlivability" (15). In Freud's paradigm, subject formation

takes place through identification and repudiation. A boy

must identify with his father (his same) and renounce or

reject the mother (his other) "under and through the force

of prohibition and taboo" (95). "Demands, taboos, sanctions,

injunctions, prohibitions, possible idealizations, and

threats" serve to keep unruly bodies in line (106). As

Irigaray points out in Speculum de l'autre femme, Freud's

discourse on sexuality operates performatively. It does not

describe an actual condition but produces a certain version

of reality, a normative phantasm of "sex," based on

masculine parameters, that require the rejection of the

maternal-feminine. As Irigaray argues, such discourses on

sexuality produce the maternal-feminine as an abject zone

outside the realm of the subject, a realm of inhabitability,

that, according to Butler,

will constitute the defining limit of the
subject's domain; it will constitute that site of
dreaded identification against which--and by
virtue of which--the domain of the subject will
circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to
life. (BTM 3)

One shores up one's position as subject through speech acts

that produce an abject outside. Stating "I would rather die

than be or do that!" is an example of the disavowal inherent

in this process (243). Among the effects the accumulation of

such renunciation produces is exclusion, disenfranchisement,

and physical harm.

The materialization of "sex" over time, through the

reiteration of regulatory norms and shaming interpellation








serves to assure the ruling authority's boundaries. What

would happen, Butler inquires, if a term meant to

marginalize were reiterated differently--detached from its

negating intent? As Austin reminds us, performative

reiteration invokes convention and this process must always

be a repetition of the same in order to assure the success

of the performative. "This law can only remain a law to the

extent that it compels the differentiated citations and

approximations called 'feminine' and 'masculine,'" Butler

demonstrates (15). If stable identity requires reiteration

over time, this reveals that the boundaries of signification

must constantly be reinstated and thus signals a possible

instability built into the system: the law "perpetually

reinstitutes the possibility of its own failure" (108). As a

result, Butler argues, "materialization is never quite

complete" and "bodies never quite comply with the norms by

which their materialization is impelled" (2). What appears

outside the normative realm in this "zone of inhabitability"

nevertheless figures inside it, she contends. It occupies

the place against which what is inside defines itself.

Because this outside is integral to the system, it hovers as

a threat to the inside's autonomy. In order to maintain its

self-perpetuation as the domain that matters, the system

must repress what it has pushed to the margins.

Each performative utterance is subject to such

infelicityy," according to Austin, a risk of failure that

cannot be controlled by a subject's intent. A strategy of








noncompliance with the authority of the speaker can perhaps

destabilizing norms. As Parker and Sedgwick note, a

threatening performative statement of

"I dare you" followed by a subversive "witnesses"
chorus of "Don't do it on our account" would
radically alter the social, the political, the
interlocutory (I-you-they) space of encounter.
(Performativity and Performance 9)

From an ethical standpoint, performativity

makes the "players" assume responsibility not only
for the statements they propose, but also for the
rules to which they submit those statements in
order to render them acceptable. (Lyotard 62)

The uncertainty within this system provides possibilities

for the "rematerialization" of abject bodies, bodies that do

not matter, in particular those who deviate from the

standard because of sex, sexual orientation, race, and/or

nationality. What effects, then, would certain subversive

acts, like Chawaf's 6criture feminine, which flaunt the

artificial nature of these constructs, produce?

Although there is no way to step neatly outside the

symbolic, destabilizing textual strategies seek to bring to

consciousness the operations of the streams of power

necessary for supporting and sustaining symbolic "law". For

Butler, "law" remains a citation. Her view on power reveals

that symbolic "law" is not an a priori Law, but is instead

self-endorsing, creating boundaries that serve to fortify

itself as Law. Strategies like mimicry put into question the

indisputable status of the "law" by revealing the

possibilities for citing it differently. Reiterations within

the "echo-chain" are always subject to failure, enabling








practices such as mimicry. Through hyperbolic over-

performances, such catachrestic speech acts produce

"unhappy" deviations (as Austin called them) in the

citational chain--"slippage between discursive command and

its appropriated effect" with the aim of forcing the

signifier "woman" to exceed its intended meaning (BTM 122).

An excessive conformity to symbolic commands actually

exposes the hyperbolic status of convention. It shows that

identity terms themselves are always catachrestic,

uncontrollable metaphorical positioning without absolute

referents. Paradoxically, exaggerated complicity with

phallogocentric norms reveals the reproductionn of power

through philosophical concepts, language, and grammar.

Pointing overtly to the gaps and fissures in signification,

nonsanctioned speech acts hold promise for intervening in

the normative framework of the symbolic order." Undermining

performative acts actually disputes the divide between the

symbolic and imaginary realms, upon whose separation Lacan

insisted.

Although Butler provides the matrix for not reading

Irigaray as essentialist, she claims nonetheless that

Irigaray idealizes the feminine as the excluded "other" par

excellence--"as what must remain outside these oppositional

positions as their supporting condition" (BTM 52). Butler

points out that in Plato's discourse

There is no singular outside, for the Forms
require a number of exclusions; they are and
replicate themselves through what they exclude,
through not being the animal, not being the woman,








not being the slave, whose propriety is purchased
through property, national and racial boundary,
masculinism, and compulsory heterosexuality. (BTM
52)

This criticism can be read as justifiable to a degree, in

that Irigaray fails to mention "the metonymic link between

women and these other Others" (BTM 49). However, Butler's

conclusion that Irigaray appropriates, and therefore

idealizes, the 'elsewhere' as the feminine can be contested

when considering how Irigaray rereads Plato--through a

strategy of mimicry. "Appropriating" the feminine is not

tantamount to "idealizing" the feminine. Irigaray mimes

Plato, making use of his familial metaphor, his exclusion of

the maternal-feminine. She does not necessarily define the

"elsewhere" of matter, but rather, her performative

rereadings suggest the inadequacy of any definition of

otherness. For example, in elaborating a morphological

figure of the lips, Irigaray does not expect the reader to

take her trope as a "real" depiction of female genitalia.

She intentionally omits the clitoral, the vaginal, and the

uterine to produce a counter response like "No! That's not

the way woman is." In this sense, a strong negative reaction

testifies to the success of the displacement. If matter is,

as Butler claims, "an ungrounded figure" and if

the feminine, strictly speaking, has no morphe, no
morphology, no contour, for it is that which
contributes to the contouring of things, but is
itself undifferentiated, without boundary (BTM
49),








then how is it that Irigaray posits "the notion that the

feminine monopolizes the sphere of the excluded" (BTM 48)?

But, as apparent in Irigaray's lips figure, her mime reveals

a paradigm of dominance/subordination at work and it serves

to expose a certain logic of exclusion operating in

philosophical discourse, without foreclosing the play of

difference.

As Gayatri Spivak argues, identity categories allow

identity-based political practices to proceed. Yet, treating

them as foundations beyond interrogation limits political

potential ("In a Word" 124-56). It should be recognized that

the totalizations of such categories are provisional and

tactical. Irigaray recognizes the complexity of differences

among women: "les femmes ne forment pas A strictement parler

une classes, et leur dispersion dans plusieurs rend leur

combat politique et complex" (CS 31; TS 32). In the final

analysis, an interrogation of the terms of feminist debate

(the concepts of woman, sex, and gender) reveals the

discourse's own relation to power and authority and

therefore remains true to the democratizing principles of

feminist practice.

Conclusion

Exploring sexual metaphors in Western philosophy,

Irigaray and Butler reveal the exclusions inherent in the

production of "sex" in Western philosophy that challenge its

claims to Truth or Reality. The standard discourse produces

bodies which fall outside the realm of legitimacy, bodies








marginalized in terms of sex, sexual orientation, race,

ethnicity, and class--or any combination of the latter.

Irigaray and Butler seek new ways of conceptualizing

exclusive categories like "sex." In the twentieth century,

whereas the disciplines of anthropology and psychoanalysis

have provided useful insights for rethinking "sex" for

feminist purposes, Western philosophy is often seen as a

discourse that serves only to devalorize "woman." Irigaray

and Butler seek to show the ways in which this discourse can

be used to advance political democratization as well.

Although Chawaf's ecriture feminine is a textual and

also a political practice rooted in this philosophical

tradition, her procedure has yet to be studied within the

context of the tradition's important contributions to

contemporary feminist practice, brought to light by Irigaray

and Butler. Chawaf's version of ecriture feminine, that is

her mimetic strategy, employs gender categories

metaphorically. Few critics have acknowledged this, and the

implications of her use of metaphor have not yet been

sufficiently elaborated.

Irigaray's and Butler's rethinking of matter and gender

performance is useful for refuting claims that Chawaf's

ecriture feminine is an outmoded, essentialist, and passive

attempt at defining "woman." In fact, an argument could be

made that ecriture feminine has been rejected as a viable

"feminist" practice because it puts the idealized category








of "woman" into question, and thereby threatens a feminism

that depends on the solid ground of identity.

This chapter has focused on how Irigaray and Butler

offer a dynamic view of matter, not seen unproblematically

as a bodily given, but as standardized and regulated through

discourse, through the repeated invocation of norms.

Conceptualized in this way, the ethical implications of

matter are revealed: those bodies in noncompliance with

norms are socially marked as insignificant--as not

mattering--as nonexistent in terms of social and political

rights. They shift the focus of feminist inquiry from the

interrogative mode (asking, "what is woman?") toward the

performative, "toward the imaginative enactment of sexual

redefinitions, reborderizations, and rearticulations" (Fuss

7). In my opinion, such imagining "otherwise" is the goal of

Chawaf's practice. The body, Butler argues, is

a materiality that bears meaning, if nothing else,
and the manner of this bearing is fundamentally
dramatic the body is not only merely matter
but a continual and incessant materializing of
possibilities. One is not simply a body, but, in
some very key sense, one does one's body. (BTM
272)

To state that "one does one's body" is not to deny biology.

Rather, Butler's theory of performativity reveals how

discourse shapes consciousness of material bodies, masks

difference, and even impels bodies to comply to norms that

never quite fit. Recasting the female body as Irigaray does

with her lips figure demonstrates how "doing" one's body is

a complex, dynamic, theatrical process, a performance that








is never completely finished. It broadens the horizon of

possibilities for refiguring the concept of "woman." From

this perspective, Chawaf's ecriture feminine can be seen as

an active procedure, a complex process of reworking

conceptualizations of bodies.

Examining Chawaf's writing through the theoretical

optic provided by Irigaray and Butler offers a new way of

understanding her controversial insistence on relations

between bodily materiality and textuality, and in

particular, how and to what ends she exploits conventional

portrayals of woman.

Notes

The term indifferencee signifies the veiled non-
differentiation between the sexes, hence Irigaray's
inscription of difference carries the traces of its
indifference.

2 For Irigaray, sexual difference is at the heart of
all problems of marginalization, be they gender, class,
race, or homosexuality. In taking such a stance, Irigaray
does, nevertheless, recognize differences within and among
these groups. Speaking of women, she says, "les femmes ne
forment pas a strictement parler une classes, et leur
dispersion dans plusieurs rend leur combat politique et
complex" (CS 31; TS 32).

3 Irigaray understands sexual specificity as both
difference between the anatomy of women and men, and the
difference as it is inscribed in the cultural imaginary and
its symbolic representations.

4 See Jacques Derrida, "La structure, le signe, et le
jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines," in L'Ecriture
et la difference, as well as De la grammatologie, Marges de
la philosophie, and Positions.

5Irigaray's works are widely read in English. Therefore
page references include both French and English versions.
The abbreviations CS, TS, SP, and SPE stand, respectively,
for the following: Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris:









Editions de Minuit, 1977); This Sex Which is Not One, trans.
Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell, 1985); Speculum de
l'autre femme (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974); Speculum of
the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell,
1985).

6 Matter in Irigaray should be understood as both a
noun and a verb. It constitutes what is conceptualized as
physical reality, as well as how this reality means or is
significant.

7 See Ferdinand de Saussure and Tullio De Mauro, Cours
de linquistique q6n6rale (Paris: Payot, 1972).

8 See Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses: une
archeologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

9 This verb is synonymous with "representer," "monter,"
"interpreter," "simuler," "imiter," "incarner," "speculer,"
"se servir de," "se moquer de," and "risquer de."

"0 As Elin Diamond points out, "a nonmimetic language
means that a speaker can no longer lay claim to a stable
system of reference, can no longer rely on language to
mirror (express, represent) her entire thought" (59).

"Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex
(New York: Routledge, 1993) is abbreviated as BTM throughout
this manuscript.

Butler uses these terms to distinguish between the
other of the same and the Other of the other. Yet she also
notes her own improper use of excessive feminine, for she
names an element that cannot be thematized within philosophy
(BTM, 38-39).

13 In Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un.

Gallop reminds the reader of the contextualization
and temporality of this movement: "as soon as the metaphor
becomes a proper noun, we no longer have creation, we have
paternity" (81).

'" See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) and
Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New
York: Routledge, 1993).

In Bodies That Matter, Butler problematizes and
draws inspiration from the thought of a broad range of
thinkers--among them Lacan, Freud, Zizek, Laclau, and









Mouffe.

7 "It is always necessary that the circumstances in
which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways,
appropriate" (8). "The words must be spoken 'seriously' so
as to be taken 'seriously'" (9).

For "happy," successful performatives: "there must
exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain
conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering
of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances
.appropriate for the invocation of the particular
procedure invoked"; "the procedure must be executed by all
participants both correctly and completely" and "where, as
often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having
certain thoughts or feelings a person must have
those thoughts or feelings," they must harbor the intention
to conduct themselves in a certain way, and finally, must
follow through with that intention (14-15).

Butler cites the example of the divine creation of
the world. God creates light through saying, "Let there be
light!"

Drawing from the work of Derrida and Lacan, Butler
separates acts from their implications of presence through
the notion of the sign chain. She understands "acts" in a
broad sense, as linked to a prior chain of acts. The fact
that they must be repeated signals "a provisional failure of
memory" and shows a present act to be, in fact, a vulnerable
continuum of the past (BTM 244). This vulnerability enables
a reconfiguration of past and present.

It is important to note that the result of such
performances can never be fully determined from the outset.
As noted earlier, their signifying power extends beyond
intention. In addition, a degree of complicity with norms
and convention makes possible these radical acts. However,
Butler makes a case for exploring their possibilities
anyway, despite the uncertainty and incontrollability, since
"the incalculable effects of action are as much a part of
their subversive promise as those we plan in advance" (BTM
241).














CHAPTER TWO
CENTRE LA FICTION:
PARATEXT AND PARODY IN RETABLE-LA REVERIE

Ce nest pas strange si
j'ai l'impression d'aller
centre la fiction.

Chawaf, "Contre la fiction"

Pour border un texte, il
faudrait que celui-ci eOt un
bord.

Derrida, "Survivre"

Chantal Chawaf's first and arguably most important

novel,i Retable-la reverie was published in 1974, the same

year as Irigaray's Speculum de l'autre femme and Cixous'

famous essay "Le Rire de la meduse." Its debut marked the

beginning of an era of female writers in France who flooded

the literary scene with works attempting to bring

specifically female experiences into the aesthetic arena.

Like Colette's "feminine" writing, Chawaf and many of her

contemporaries celebrated the pleasures and pains of

motherhood. However, writers of "ecriture feminine"2 more

explicitly envisioned their work as a means to protest the

moral, ideological, and aesthetic doxa of the epoch.

Retable recounts a woman's quest for identity--her own

and that of her mother, who was killed on her way to the

hospital to give birth. After learning of her mother's fate

from her adoptive father, she attempts to recreate her birth








mother through the act of writing. More a performance than

an account of events, La Reverie celebrates lovemaking, in

all its intricacy, between a man and a woman. The reader in

search of an elaborate plot might be disappointed by

Chawaf's first novel, for the pleasure offered by the text

comes in the form of rich images, elaborate metaphors, and

play at the level of lexis and syntax.

Despite Chawaf's unusual treatment of language, her

insistence on the biological, the maternal as privileged

experience, and "writing life" has been viewed as

problematic, from both avant-garde and feminist

perspectives. Considering Chawaf's association with Psych et

Po and Des Femmes, one would expect a transgressive feminist

approach to body and text. Yet the representations of women

in her novels reiterate, and hence have been said to

perpetuate, old myths and archetypes. Within a feminist

context, the "formes de femme" and their relation to the

womb evoke a maternal plenitude that raises a red flag. Are

they exclusionary when it comes to those who cannot, have

not, or will not give birth? Can these forms and her focus

on identity through a mother figure be labeled essentialist,

in conflict with a nonexclusionary, ethical life-embracing

perspective, and grounds to label her simply an "uncritical

maternalist?"' Or, from another angle, do they repeat a

mystification of the feminine, positing it as unknowable, as

some feminist critics claim of contemporary philosophical








practices?4 How might Chawaf's writing practice be

understood in a feminist context?

Such gender trouble is coupled with questions of

literary approach. Throughout the article "Contre la

fiction," Chawaf criticizes realist methods of writing, and

cites Balzac and Flaubert in particular, for aiming to box

in the novelistic universe, to limit language (47, 55).5 In

contrast, she claims to write "contre la fiction," to

produce an "1criture de la vie" that joins fiction with

life. To emphasize the extent to which Chawaf's writing

style is inseparable from her feminism of sexual difference,

Bosshard categorizes her project as a "realisme 'po-

6thique'" ("De l'eutopie champ8tre" 75). As Bosshard's

description suggests, Chawaf's poetics cannot be understood

outside the context of her ethics of love. Nonetheless, a

reading of her practice as realist implies that Chawaf

employs both language and imagery of female body with the

intent to approximate a faithful representation of nature.

Indeed, in order to flesh out the narrative she relies on

techniques and stereotypical portrayals of "woman" that seem

to support realist convention. What can be made of the

author's claims to be writing the matter, the body, the

feminine and the language of life? How can this be explained

in the context of the assertion that she writes centree la

fiction?"

In order to explore the dynamic of representation and

life writing in Retable-la reverie, this chapter examines








instances of the novel's paratext. As formulated by Gerard

Genette in Seuils, the paratext comprises those constitutive

supplements that designate the text as text and make

possible its presentation to the public, its circulation,

and its performance. Retable-la reverie's paratextual

elements provide a context for understanding what has been

called "the archetypal text of 6criture feminine" (Haxell

"Woman as Lacemaker" 546). My discussion aims to shed light

on Chawaf's aesthetic and ethical engagement with language,

and more broadly, to problematize the reading of her work as

naively realist.

Paratext

In Seuils, Genette's entertaining, thought-provoking

study on the topic, he defines paratext as

ce par quoi un texte se fait livre et se propose
comme tel a ses lecteurs, et plus gen6ralement au
public. [ ] il s'agit ici d'un seuil
ou--mot de Borges a propos d'une preface--d'un
'vestibule' qui offre A tout un chacun la
possibility d'entrer, ou de rebrousser chemin.
'Zone ind6cise' entire le dedans et le dehors,
elle-meme sans limited rigoureuse, ni vers
l'int&rieur (le texte) ni vers l'ext6rieur (le
discours du monde sur le texte), lisiere, ou,
comme disait Philippe Lejeune, 'frange du texte
imprimi qui, en r6alit&, command toute la
lecture' zone de transition de
transaction. (7-8)

The paratext comprises the background objects that

constitute a literary work, that present it to the public

and render it materially present. They enable the marketing

and distribution of a text, and condition the public's

expectations. Guiding the exchange between the world and the








word, between real life and fiction, they form the mise-en-

scene that conditions the narrative. A novel without

paratext is no novel at all. As Genette points out, a text's

material existence depends upon these threshold figures, yet

historically critics give weight to individual features such

as titles and biographical information, while the larger

context of their relation to reception remains peripheral.

Attention to these elements challenges the conception

of the book as a static entity, for how and whether it

exists depends on a variety of factors including historical

context, reader reception, authorial and editorial

influence, the market, and evolving technology in the

distribution of information, such as the internet. As open

frontier or membrane, the paratext remains in flux. Nowadays

more or less sanctioned by an author, the fringe elements of

the paratext actually command the whole reading. Situated in

a zone between the inside and outside of a text, they aid

the reader's transition from one realm to another, from the

"real" world to the textual world, forming a liminal space

where the binaries of real/fiction and public/private

converge. This zone of transition, Genette demonstrates,

operates above all as a zone of transaction.

An exploration of the space of transaction is key, in

Irigaray's view, as a means of access to sexual difference.

A reexamination of what counts as "real" can take place by

interrogating the liminal elements of the scenography of the








scene of representation--its constitutive aspects, notably

matter and the mirror:

l'architectonique de son theatre, son cadrage de
l'espace-temps, son &conomie g6ometrique, son
ameublement, ses acteurs, leurs positions
respective, leurs dialogues, voire leurs rapports
tragiques. (CS 72-3; TS 75)

She suggests a shift in focus from the action of center

stage to the economy within which it takes place: the

framing of the transaction and the exchange between text and

reader. In post-structuralist critiques using the theatrical

trope, the focus is displaced, as Timothy Murray succinctly

puts it, from "what is represented" to "how it is shown or

re-presented and how it is seen, read, or received"

(Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime 7). The critique of feminist

post-structuralist theory as ludic play with, and nihilistic

destruction of, the grounds of feminist practice must be

reconsidered. Murray rightly argues that such questioning of

a realist approach serves not to deny the real, but rather,

seeks a less myopic perspective on "reality." The shift in

focus from representation to construction involves

negotiation of meaning between interlocutor and audience,

authors and readers.

The relationship of literature with the public is of

primary concern to Chawaf. She views reading writerlyy"

texts as a way for men and women to work through sexual

repression, the repression of the feminine. In Le corps et

le verbe she offers examples of the dynamic functioning of

language--its performative power. With the proliferation of








the written word, language has divided human beings, she

argues, and therefore it also holds the power to remake the

world. Refiguring the conceptual limits of the novel and the

feminine is part of her work towards reconnection, a kind of

ever-evolving unity that does not suppress difference.

The first-time reader, or those who simply glance

through Retable-la reverie, will notice how the

supplementary, auxiliary, and supporting elements of the

paratext play an important role in the novel. An aspect of

her innovative technique unmentioned in the criticism,

Chawaf's use of paratextual elements shows the latter to

operate as more than stable contextual parameters for the

novel; they serve an active role in the world-building

activities of readers. Focusing on the 'becoming' of the

speaking subject and the text through an emphasis on the

paratextual, Chawaf interrogates the effects of encounters

between texts and audiences.

In choosing "para," Genette baptized these elements

appropriately, for etymologically the prefix signifies

"against" in both senses of the word: "counter" and

"beside." By its prefix, the term parody also belongs to

this same zone of the undecidable and is rooted in a similar

paradox. In her extensive analysis of twentieth-century

parodic forms, Hutcheon stresses that it is the nature of

parody to signify in contradictory ways.6 When Chawaf states

that her writing goes centree la fiction," she describes her

6criture feminine as a literature of proximity and








opposition. Like other avant-garde literary practices,

Chawaf's mimetic strategy simultaneously draws from and

positions itself against tradition, capitalizing on

intertextual references that enable the construction of

author and audience roles. Echoes of works throughout the

centuries from medieval romance to surrealism, from texts by

Plato, Montaigne, Rousseau, Proust, Breton, and Beckett,

resonate throughout Retable-la reverie.7

It is fitting, then, that the liminal, paratextual

spaces of Retable-la reverie be explored, especially as

sites open to negotiation, unstable, possible spaces of

cognitive shift and transformation. An examination of some

of Retable-la reverie's paratexts demonstrates how Chawaf

goes withagainst normative conceptions of genre and gender.

In particular, it offers insights into how the book's

construction interrogates ways of thinking about texts,

bodies, and the connections between the them.

Grossesse

In "De Retable A Rougeatre," Chawaf describes the bond

between her "1criture du f6minin" and her experience of

maternity:

J'ai commence Retable en grossesse. Les
premieres lignes de mon ecriture sont venues du
venture, de ma matrice pleine, de ma matrice o~
vivait, ou respirait un enfant et j'ai entendu et
vu une coloration linguistique rosee qui se
deposait en mots mat&riels, en petites phrases
grosses et rondes sur les pages blanches. C'6tait
la profonde joie de communiquer avec la vie, avec
la langue de la vie. C'etait l'espace d'une
liberation des perceptions de mon corps de femme
ou la vie dans un foetus m&el a l'ecriture prenait
forme, formes de femme Et puis les








retrouvailles s'dlargissaient, se sont d&veloppees
et n'ont plus cess6 de cheminer, de s'ouvrir et
Retable m'a conduite aupres des Editions des
Femmes, aupres d'une femme, Antoinette .
aupres d'un travail ou s'organisait politiquement
notre liberation et notre difference, oI le
language que je me sentais moi-meme en train de
liberer s'inscrivait grace & ce group dans
l'efficacit6 d'une lutte. (87)

Key to understanding her subversion of gender and genre

norms, this paratextual document from a 1978 interview

describes the genesis of Retable-la reverie. Genette

classifies such accounts as public epitexts of the

"auctorial" type.

Chawaf describes her pregnancy and coming to writing as

indistinguishable events blending together body, text, and

psyche. In abundant prose, she recounts the wonder of her

pivotal maternal/literary experience, the floodgate of

communication it opened for her, both personally and

politically. Subtly but unmistakably, her account also stirs

with revolt. Underneath its playful tone rumbles a

contention not only with the social status quo of the era

but with the history of aesthetics and ethics.

After a seven-year stay in Syria, Chawaf returned to

her native France quaking in the aftermath of May '68, and

to the rupture of the second wave of feminism. Female

intellectuals engaged in the events of the revolt were full

of expectations for the future. Yet they emerged from this

period disheartened by a larger awareness of oppression.

What promised to be an era of social expansion after the

upheaval, proved to be, from a feminine perspective,








continued familiar exploitation. The sexual division of

labor--the delegation of women to grunge work--mirrored the

traditional role of women as providers of support services,

shutting them out of positions of power. From their point of

view, the expansion of democratic ideals carried with it an

unspoken imperative: 'for men only.'

Moved by what they saw as hypocrisy inherent in the

system in place, groups of French women took the initiative,

forming organizations on several fronts over the next few

years as a strategy of attack: the M.L.F., Psych et Po, Des

Femmes and the Centre d'Etudes F6minines. These coalitions

initiated gendered critiques, arguing that systematic

oppression was symptomatic of both capitalism and

patriarchy. Faced with barriers that did not allow them

access, they built a network of their own. Chawaf makes it

clear that thanks to the presence of "Des Femmes," a press

willing to support texts written in the service of

liberation and sexual difference, there was a means by which

she could publish her work and join with others in a like

cause.

Especially in criticism dating from the late 1970s and

early 1980s, Chawaf's lyrical novels singing the praises of

femininity were interpreted as an affirmation of the

positive aspects of womanhood. As a producer of such texts,

Chawaf figured among the ranks of those attempting to create

a feminine genealogy, a space of writing in which

specifically female experiences--relations between women and








their children, mothers, or partners--could be explored from

a woman's perspective. For those whose lived experience of

motherhood contradicted Simone de Beauvoir's condemnation of

it as alienating, Chawaf's celebration of motherhood came as

a welcome response.

Paradoxically, with the rise of the essentialist

critique in the early 1980s, 6criture feminine received

increased critical attention. Unlike its early reception,

this avant-garde practice was viewed for the most part in a

negative light. Chawaf's references to the biological and

the maternal were interpreted as essentialist. Charges of

essentialism arose from the assumption that Chawaf

envisioned the body as privileged instrument of one's grasp

on the world. Linking her coming to writing with pregnancy,

the passage in "De Retable a Roucretre" made her an easy

target. To a greater extent than her contemporaries, she was

blamed for having so explicitly "tied the practice of

feminine writing to the biological fact of motherhood"

(Suleiman, The (M)other Tongue 370)."

On the basis that the institution of motherhood often

operates in the service of patriarchy, Beauvoir viewed the

functions of menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation, in

general, as alienating forces. Exposing ways in which

material differences perpetuate sexual inequality, she

developed a framework for splitting gender from sex as a

means to differentiate the cultural from the biological. Her

distinction between these two poles has been a major








contribution to feminist thinking. However, Chawaf,

Irigaray, and other writers of Acriture feminine take issue

with the possibility of the existence of a sexually neutral

subject. Since material differences between the sexes have

been used in the service of women's oppression, the

discourse reiterating these differences should be

interrogated on its own terms.

Chawaf, like Irigaray, travels the territory that

Beauvoir left unexplored. It is necessary to put into

question "ce vide de la mere," Chawaf argues, to

"l'explorer, le parcourir, l'habiter" in order to expose the

exclusion of the feminine ("De Retable a Roucgetre" 88). Her

"ecriture de la vie" can be read against the conception of

literary creation as a masculine metaphor, a biological act

in which the pen ejects ink onto the page and culminates

with "la petite mort," as a mimetic strategy of

displacement. In creation as a masculine act, the text is

complete when finished by the author who is central and

active, in control of meaning. Conversely, it implies that

the receiver (be it page or reader) accepts passively. Yet

such a conception effaces what is "other": the feminine as a

participant in the process, the material elements supporting

its foundation, and the reader as 'writer' or interpreter.

Miming the metaphor of writing as a masculine

engendering, Chawaf generates a specifically feminine

counter-trope as opposed to the phallic pen: the pregnant

womb. A figure for creating a space receptive to feminine








desire and sexual difference, her seemingly traditional

metaphor can be viewed as a seditious "vol" from

conventional origins.

To explore the womb as a space of writing is not to

make a clean break with the metaphor of writing as an act of

biological reproduction, but it is part of Chawaf's mimetic

strategy for critically engaging the logic of an economy of

domination on its own terms. Pregnant with possibilities and

performativity, this trope exemplifies the spirit of &criture

feminine which, as Cixous says, "est la possibility meme du

changement" (Rire 42). Both Cixous and Irigaray insist that

at this time there is no fertile ground outside the dominant

discourse from which a feminine language could spring, "mais

un sol millionaire et aride a fendre" ("Rire" 39). Like

Irigaray's mimicry, the function of Chawaf's mimetic

strategy is not to replace the masculine-centered metaphor

with a female-centered one, but to reproduce a copy of the

self-same with a critical difference as a means of

displacing the singular model as the model par excellence.

As Irigaray says, the aim is to jam the theoretical

machinery of normative metaphors, "de suspendre sa

pretension A la production d'une v4rit6 et d'un sens par

trop univoques" (CS 75; TS 78).

Lest one be mislead that the maternal is a metaphor by

taking Chawaf's words as descriptive rather than performative

and then dismiss the author for such an obviously essentialist

position, her choice of terms puts us on the right track.9 In








the passage where she describes the genesis of her writing in

maternal terms, "se d6posait" paradoxically signifies both

placement and displacement, simultaneous positing and

withdrawing, the operation of the mime. This double inscribing

gesture reveals the dual function of Chawaf's mimetic strategy

inherent in her womb metaphor: "ce que je dis a au moins deux

faces et deux vis6es: detruire, casser; prdvoir l'imprevu,

projeter" ("Rire" 39).

Chawaf's recourse to feminine exclusion is to

poser le d&sir de femme Poser, tracer la
femme existante, l'aider a exister, se donner
existante, pas morte, &crire la femme vivante.
Ecrire a partir du corps vivant. Mais on a voulu,
on veut si souvent la femme morte, la femme
souffrante, la femme fantasme. La femme tradition,
celle qui n'existe pas. ("Ecrire a partir du corps
vivant" 119)

Chawaf, like Irigaray, views the first step toward

sexual difference as beginning right where one is. To

"Tracer la femme existante" is to trace the ways in which

Woman exists in the cultural imaginary, to mime the logic

and expose it. Chawaf tactically deploys the metaphor of the

uterus to counter the logic of the phallus:

puisqu'on definit l'homme a partir de son corps,
de sa physiologie face a cet order qui a ete
fait, il est peut-8tre temps de voir l'autre c6t6
aussi. ("Discussion avec Chantal Chawaf" 135)

In "Ecrire a partir du corps," Chawaf decries the

symbolic devaluation of the womb:

L'uterus ne jouit pas du m8me statut, on renvoie la
femme a la nature, a la chair, au corps, & la
jouissance, au sans-parole, a l'indefinissable de
la sensation, a une maternity utilitaire, faire des
enfants, non pas faire des ames d'enfants, non pas
faire des esprits d'enfants. On la renvoie a ce








biologique tronqu6. .. ("Ecrire a partir du
corps vivant" 120)

In Irigaray's interview with H6lene Rouch in Je. Tu, Nous,

Rouch demystifies the psychoanalytic notion that the

separation of the psychic fusion of mother and child occurs

at the time of the child's entry into the symbolic, through

an intermediary, the "Nom-du-Pere" (47). The biological

reality is that there is no fusion in utero. Unlike the idea

that the fetus occupies the mother's body in the military

sense, her flesh is not the host for a parasitic intruder.

Allowing for peaceful cohabitation, the placenta mediates

between the bodies of mother and child and regulates the

exchange of nutrients and waste products. In order to

trigger the hormones that create the placenta, mother's

body--the self--must initially recognize the fetus as

foreign to her body. Most importantly, as Rouch indicates,

after this recognition of the other as "other," "la

difference entire le 'soi' et l'autre est pour ainsi dire

ind6finiment n&gocide" (Je, Tu. Nous 45). Clearly, the

description of the placental relation is an idealized

construct, as is Irigaray's figure of the lips; there are

cases when the placental fails in its functioning and causes

harm to the mother, the fetus, or both. This idealized

relation should be read in the context of Irigaray's

mimicry.

From an ethical standpoint, Chawaf's figure of the womb

offers a counterpart to ways of thinking that supports a

logic of domination and subordination. It is a figure of








union in difference, centered on generosity, a prototype of

proximity that would not require the effacement of the

other. Chawaf writes, "J'ai soif d'un flux et d'un desordre

qu'il ne serait pas urgent d'endiguer, j'ai soif de

generosit6" (Rougeatre 124). In maternal unity, each

individual retains difference. The mother-fetus relation

magnifies the error of dichotomous thinking, the folly in

the belief of complete independence of concepts, and

stresses inherent human interdependence.

Chawaf, ever critical of pinning down signification as

rational logic is wont to do, prefers a poetic mode and a

less restricted code. Suggestive of surrealist "ecriture

automatique," her writing figures a stream of prose flowing

from what is other to the conscious mind. Instead of centering

her metaphor on the quest to unlock the unconscious mind, for

Chawaf, the unconscious is rooted, above all, in body memory.

As she describes it, her creative power emanates from life

stirring in her womb; the form of her writing mimics the

pregnant body. Replacing the aesthetic concept of the pregnant

moment privileging the specular, Chawaf's ecriture feminine

engages all the senses. Through rich onomatopoeia and imagery,

her lexical combinations evoke sound, sight, taste, smell, and

above all, touch. She describes her notion of maternity not

necessarily as biological event, but as an ethical stance,

an "attention A la vie, d'1coute de la vie a partir d'une

vie qui s'organise dans le corps de la femme" ("Discussion








avec Chantal Chawaf" 135). Womb writing, in terms of the

placental economy,

c'est une attitude, enracinee dans le corps, dans
une histoire du corps, dans une m6moire et des
perceptions du corps qui d6bouchent sur le mental,
sur le symbolique face a ce symbolique pere qui
regne depuis longtemps. ("Discussion avec Chantal
Chawaf" 137)

Her seemingly essentialist references to the feminine

maternal body have less to do with biological sex than "une

attitude psychologique":

f6minin et masculin ne sont plus determines par le
sexe mais determines par une attitude
psychologique, affective devant la vie,
inddpendamment du sexe qu'on a. ("Discussion avec
Chantal Chawaf" 136)

In her view a more apt term, one that applies to all humans,

would be "corps."

Round and circular, camouflaged with "une coloration

linguistique rosee" the material words mimic the form of

the full womb, narrowing the distance between form and

content. This narrowing of the distinction between form and

content characterizes both ecriture feminine and the nouveau

roman, although the ideology and "raison d'etre" behind

these two types of writing differs significantly. Unbound by

time and space, the metaphor of uterine connections evokes

the past of tradition, the present bond between mother and

child, and the future of the child's growth and evolution.

In Ethiaue de la difference sexuelle, Irigaray develops

an ethics of closeness similar to the paradigm of womb

relations, a phenomenologyy of touching" (Schutte's term).1"

Chawaf too envisages an ethics of proximity as a point of









departure for refiguring the relations between self and

other and for healing injury. Instead of a relation of self

to other, Chawaf's maternal metaphor describes the

experience of self with other, the becoming of both fetus

and mother in a mutual interchange of give and take. Chawaf

describes the ethical intentions shaping her literary

practice:

D6sir de sauvegarder, de preserver, de donner la
vie. Amour non pas seulement de la vie charnelle
mais de la vie spirituelle. [ ] Pour que la
chair cesse d'etre primitive. L'ecriture doit se
r&&crire. Non plus loin mais tout pres du contact.
Au plus pres du toucher, du palper, du sentir. Au
plus pres de cette envelope humide de chair
animal qui spare de nous-mmmes le mot. (Le corps
et le verbe 13)

Just as the mother's body supports the life of the child, so

the fetus "m&le A l'ecriture" enables the creative act,

hence the liberation of her perceptions of her female body.

Toute expression, toute liberation de la parole
vivante du corps actif, du corps en r&ceptivit6,
du corps en travail sont politiques. [ .
elles peuvent modifier la parole politique,
l'aider A 6voluer, & perdre sa rigidity et A se
rapprocher des hommes, des femmes, des enfants.
("Ecrire A paratis du corps vivant" 120)

In a sense, the mother and child represent two aspects of

the self, of what Chawaf calls a human's bisexuality. In Le

corps et le verbe the author argues that because humans

continue to repress their feminine aspect, one side of

ourselves ("I'interdite") wages battle against the other

("la permise"), perpetuating self-loathing and destruction

within us (Le corps et le verbe 10). As long as the battle

continues internally, this state of turmoil will be








reflected externally, preserving a vicious, injurious world.

The author believes that healing must begin with the

individual, and provides the maternal image, a non-violent

separation, as a symbolization of difference without

aggression. Although indicting the novel as the means by

which we perpetuate this crime against ourselves, she argues

that it is also from there that "tout peut toujours

repartir" (Le Corps et le verbe 10).

Peritext and Autofiction

As with many works by Chawaf's female counterparts

writing during the 1970s", her first publication is woven

with details from her own life. Marianne Bosshard notes that

the author's parents died at the hands of German soldiers in

1943. Chawaf was taken from her dying mother's womb (216).

Not until adulthood did the author learn the story of her

parents' death--also that of her birth. Revolving around

questions of identity and writing, Retable's quest takes

place under similar circumstances. Ghyslaine's birth

experience mirrors the details of the author's trauma. By

interrogating her adoptive parents, the protagonist attempts

to learn the obscured "facts" about her birth parents. In

"Document (I)," an addendum to the first section of Retable,

the reader learns along with the adult Ghyslaine that during

World War II her mother was fatally wounded on her way to

give birth at the hospital. Before the mother's death,

Ghyslaine was born by caesarian. Also in the ambulance, her

birth father was killed immediately; her aunt perished some








days later. Presented in a traditional, chronological

narrative, "Document (I)" contains linear prose in contrast

to the nonlinear style of Retable-la reverie as a whole. In

this section, the protagonist's father reports the facts of

her violent birth, her parents' death, and the circumstances

of her adoption.

An indexed note accompanies the intertitle "Document

(I)," placed directly underneath it: "(I) Ces &venements

ont, sur le bitume et sous les bombes de notre monde MALADE

eu lieu r6ellement" (Retable-la reverie 39). While the usage

of notes in the twentieth-century indicates the marginal

status of the information conveyed, this note appears in a

prime position on the page. Clearly the author seeks a

special effect, but to what ends? Genette points out that

intertitles and notes, "peritextual" paratextual elements,

are often construed by reader to be more or less beyond the

narration, put in place as guideposts to aid the reader's

understanding of the text. A reader often assumes that the

instruction comes directly from the author--instead of the

implied author. On the threshold between the inside and

outside, intertitles and notes belong to a realm of

confusion where the fictional and factual intermingle.

"Document (I)" seems to represent a real-life intrusion into

the work of art, embedding a subtext of autobiographical

avowal within the text. The note forces an encounter with

the dichotomies of real-life and fiction that keeps the

reader wondering. In this case, tension is created by the









urgency to reveal "what really happened" and Chawaf's

avoidance of engaging in a discussion of Retable-la reverie

as autobiography.

Perhaps the note reference is a way for Chawaf the

author to make a cameo appearance in her own work,

reminiscent of Hitchcock's minor roles in his own films: a

self-conscious device, akin to a spatial or temporal break

in the narration, to prevent the reader from entering this

document forgetfully, or from being lulled into a

comfortable, fictive place. Or, perhaps it is a parody,

masked by its serious tone, of a Rabelaisian sound bite, the

authorial "precis" of a chapter's contents as found in

Pantagruel or Gargantua and in many novels of the eighteenth

century.

Interestingly, as easily as Chawaf refers to her

personal experience of maternity in the interview "De

Retable A Rouge&tre," she is less willing in later

commentary to connect events in the text to the

circumstances of her own birth. In this she differs from

contemporaries like Cixous and Cardinal who are known to

emphasize the autobiographical origins of their work, but

resembles more closely Duras, ever cautious to confirm

connections between her biography and her fiction. Virtually

every critical work discussing Retable-la reverie mentions

the uncanny circumstances of the author's birth, yet only

Bosshard documents discussion of this topic with Chawaf. In

view of her insistence on being read as a woman and her








claim to be writing life, what might explain the evidence of

ambivalence toward an autobiographical reading of this

novel?

What can be made of the contrast between her emphasis

on sexual difference, her desire to be read as a woman,

evident in her books and articles, and an avoidance of the

personal in interviews? Since Proust, the concept of

autobiography has become synonymous with autofiction. With

the French literary tradition in mind, it is clear that

Chawaf desires to be read as a woman where "woman" remains a

constructed concept. As she explicitly states, "Sexualit6

feminine cache par la sexuality masculine. Rendre la parole

a la femme. La femme? Ou plut6t ma realite de femme .. "

("Ecrire a partir du corps vivant" 119).

Even without its autobiographical echoes, Chawaf's

novel and readings of it would unavoidably involve the

question of autobiography and the "real-life" influences on

her work. As Genette points out, there are certain details

of an author's life that are always viewed as significant.

If the writer is not male, one of those notable aspects is

sex. Only works written by heterosexual men will be read as

sex neutral. In many cases, a novel written by a woman will

be interpreted through the grid of a "woman's novel." Of

course Chawaf has calculated that her sex bears on our

reading, that it conditions her texts' receptions. She does

not take issue with being read as a woman writer, on the

contrary, but repeatedly emphasizes the limits of the








concept of "woman," insisting on both its social and

biological aspects.

Titles and Construction

Retable-la reverie's architecture features an unusual

presentation. Two books bound together, each "separate" work

consists of a front cover, editorial pages, and back cover.

At the outset of this chapter, as soon as I put the title

into writing, I committed a faux pas--an unavoidable misstep

and a transgression of law (faut pas)." Written as

Retable-la reverie, grammar dictates that the text comprises

one whole, broken into separate but related parts with the

"second" logically following, and subordinate to, the

"first." Retable does end in ellipsis, indicating

continuation, but then, so does La reverie. Considered

within the context of Chawaf's oeuvre, such endings do not

mark the text as unique. All but two of her works,

Redemption and Vers la lumiere, conclude in suspension." An

examination of the pagination offers no definitive answer.

Retable runs to page 93, but La reverie begins prematurely

on page 101. If the pages in between are to be counted, the

second part should begin on 103. Chawaf explains this

penchant for unending borders:

Quand j'ecris, ce qui compete, c'est de pouvoir
conduire l'ecriture A circuler d'un texte a
l'autre, d'un texte dans l'autre et de toujours
pousser, pousser l'ecriture, de l'obliger a perdre
toujours un peu plus de terrain sous
l'envahissement de la presence du corps. ("De
Retable a Rouqeatre" 88









Perhaps it would be more fitting to inscribe the work as

Retable-La reverie, as two separate, but connected novels.

What, then, can be made of their binding?

Although deviating with novelistic ritual, such play

with a work's structure and title seems only slightly more

inventive than traditional usage. But Chawaf's game is more

complicated than might be inferred in her suggestion of an

"open" novelistic structure. Chawaf's text habitually leads

the reader to impasses, forcing her to interrogate and

challenge reading habits. For example, I can only address

the text if I give it a proper name. But if I name it

according to the grammatical rules of citation, I cannot

properly address it. To refer to the text(s) with proper

grammatical form is, paradoxically, to speak

catachrestically, to wander into what Plato called a

"strange and unwonted" feminine territory (Timaeus 48d), a

space where language confronts its own limits. Putting the

title into writing forces the choice of direction, a step

("pas"") that simultaneously limits and opens up, errs and

wanders. Thus on the surface the title and frame constructed

by book sections seem to aid reader interpretation by

dividing her novelistic world into separate entities. In the

final analysis, though, the either/or logic of

classification they allude to ("should this work be read as

one text or as two?") actually leads to a dilemma, for

Chawaf's construction is neither one book, nor two. It

confounds the search for one ending, and gestures toward the








insufficiency of language to accurately, definitively

describe experience. In order to speak about the text in a

coherent way, I am forced to betray it, and am reminded of

this false posture each time I reinscribe the title.

Displacing the question of whether the work consists of one

novel or two, the focus shifts from what is represented to

questions about how it is shown and how it is received: an

interrogation of the architechtonics of the theater of

representation. Leading the reader to the impasse is

Chawaf's way of awakening her to constructs taken for

granted, as givens, in both reading and living.

Thus, the title Retable can be viewed as a parody of

nominative conventions. Titling is conventional naming; it

serves the purpose of identification. Yet as a literary work

circulates among the public, acquires object status, and

becomes a commodity, its title becomes disconnected from its

identificatory purpose. Its reiteration subordinates the

descriptive function and materializes the verbal as object.

Once in the hands of editors, publishers, and the public, a

work of art takes on a new life. On the subject of the

incontrollability of her texts in the hold of others, Chawaf

confirms, "Les romans a vous 6chappe" ("Discussion

avec Chantal Chawaf" 131). Routinely viewed as descriptive,

titles have a performative function. According to Genette,

titling is an act of naming that mimics a creative power.

This creative power is often masked by conventional usage,

but not in the case of the blatantly discordant title








"Retable"--which implies, "this book is a painting." Chawaf

puts into question the novel's ontological identity by

implying, "This book is a painting," thereby setting up a

substitutive relation between the verbal and visual object.

What does her 6criture feminine have to gain from an

approach centered on painting as a model? Instead of aiming

to prove the superiority of the verbal over the visual for

depicting "reality," the author engages in the ut pictura

poesis dialogue differently.

In S/Z, Barthes describes the circumstances of

novelistic engendering, employing theatrical terms to

describe how framing founds the novelistic universe:

Toute description litteraire est une vue. On
dirait que l'nonciateur, avant de d&crire, se
poste A la fen&tre, non tellement pour bien voir,
mais pour fonder ce qu'il voit par son cadre mime:
l'embrasure fait le spectacle. (61)

In Barthes' scenario, the speaker positions himself at a

windowsill. In the case of Retable, the narrator takes her

place before an altar, offering herself up to a tradition.

The term retable designates a Renaissance altarpiece, a

triptych, composed of panels often featuring monumental

events surrounding the birth of the Baby Jesus. A retable is

the setting or support for the church's altar--a feminine

structure constructing the background of the religious

'stage'. The posterior part of an altar, it often evokes

saintly images of the Virgin Mary as an adoring mother

cradling her child. Retable's three-part structure also

mirrors a triptych. At the structural center of the novel,








the panel "Portrait" lies between the two related outer

ones, "Naissance" and "Mausol6e." Thematically, the portrait

plays a significant role in Retable, as Ghyslaine's quest

revolves around the search for her mother's identity, which

is ultimately the search for her own.

Through the image of the retable, Chawaf's literary

process, like realism, exploits painting as a model.

Barthes, restating Aristotle, points out that realism

"consiste non a copier le r&el, mais A copier une copie

(peinte) du r&el" (S/Z 61). Of interest in this formulation

is the operation of copying a painted copy, for it unmasks

the exploitation of the pictorial as a device for sustaining

the realist illusion.

In her work of art entitled "Altarpiece: Resurrection,"

contemporary artist Margo Klass draws similarities between

texts' bindings and altarpieces. This latter's moveable

panels operate like giant pages opened or closed depending

on the liturgical calendar. The altarpiece, a feminine form,

is a figure of art constructed to fold back in on itself,

like the pages of a text, like two sets of labia folding in

on themselves. Recalling Irigaray's nonconventional metaphor

of two lips constructed to put into question Freud's

conceptualization of woman's sex as a little penis,

Retable's parts have multiple points of contact. They are

neither completely distinguishable each from the other, nor

separable. Moving in sync with the rhythm of religious

seasons, the figure of the altarpiece repeatedly turns back








in on itself, recalling an endless cycle of birth, death,

and rebirth.

Instead of obscuring the edges of the frame's embrace,

Chawaf's reference to the opening and closing retable draws

attention to its "bord," enclosure, wood, matter, "hyle," or

dynamic nature. To focus on the material is to draw

attention to the constitutive, but suppressed, maternal-

feminine. The retable resists a "masculin divinise"

disguised as transcendental, its appropriation of the life-

generating function, and the resulting wounds to the

collective social body. Although a retable features painted

scenes that reflect the Word, it also constitutes the

embrasure of the altar and is located in a feminine space,

the enceintee" of the church.

The triptych's construction blurs the boundaries of

inside and outside, offering new perspectives. Through "ce

movement perp6tuel," Chawaf's 6criture feminine draws its

transgressive power for the purpose of putting into question

established convention:

Il faut faire un travail sur soi-meme et les
lecteurs aussi, d'od la transgression cette
necessity toujours de se refaire, de chercher plus
loin, d'avancer, de continue, d'etre en movement
perpetuel et done d'obliger le lecteur--et soi-
meme parce qu'on est toujours lecteur .. a
transgresser ses habitudes de lecteur, de lecture,
ses habitudes de pensee, sa vision, done toujours
aller au-del&. Toujours tout remettre en question,
tout subvertir, et dans ce movement perp6tuel, de
ce desordre, de ce chaos auquel il faut toujours
revenir, A mon avis pour recommencer, recreer.
("Discussion avec Chantal Chawaf" 128)




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FILES


CONSTRUCTIONS OF GENDER AND GENRE
IN CHANTAL CHAWAF'S RETABLE-LA REVERIE
By
ELIZABETH I. DROPPLEMAN
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
1999

Copyright 1999
by
Elizabeth Droppleman

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This dissertation could not have been realized without
the generosity of many individuals. I am especially grateful
to the committee Chair, Dr. William Calin, and the members
of the supervisory committee, Dr. John Leavey, Dr. Carol
Murphy, Dr. Ofelia Schutte, and Dr. Gayle Zachmann, for the
expert advice and direction that made possible the
completion of this project. Special thanks is in order for
Dr. Gayle Zachmann's tireless work with me on the genesis of
this study; her extraordinary commitment to mentoring
students has provided me with a model that I will strive to
emulate.
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' award of a
Threadgil Dissertation Fellowship and the Department of
Romance Languages and Literatures' award of a Nancy Kaufmann
Scholarship for study abroad provided generous support of
which I am appreciative.
Finally, I cannot possibly how fully my family (Mom,
Dad, Susan, Jackie, John, Richard, Timothy, Taylor, Ellen),
friends (Joe, Judy, Kristy, Xandria, Jeannine, Val, Bill,
Hutch), and Wayne have supported me through this endeavor. I
continue to be moved by their gifts of unfailing
encouragement and love. This dissertation is dedicated to
Mary Lutz and Irene Murphy in remembrance of the past, and
to the future of Ellen, Alexa, and our girls to come.
iii

TABLE OF CONTENTS
page
ACKNOWLEGMENTS iii
ABSTRACT V
INTRODUCTION 1
Notes 12
CHAPTER ONE. MIMICRY AND PERFORMATIVITY 15
Sexual (In)Difference, Representation and Matter 17
The Mirror and Mimétisme 20
Rereading Plato 28
Rereading Freud 35
Gender Perforraativity 47
Conclusion 61
Notes 64
CHAPTER TWO. GOING AGAINST FICTION: PARATEXT AND PARODY
IN RETABLE-LA REVERIE 67
Paratext 70
Grossesse 74
Peritext and Autofiction 85
Titles and Construction 89
Cover Art 96
Notes 105
CHAPTER THREE. MIMICRY: QUEST AND DREAM IN RETABLE-LA
REVERIE 108
Résumé Ill
Retable 117
Naissance 117
Document (I) 140
Portrait 142
Mausolée 150
La Reverie 151
Notes 172
CONCLUSION 174
Notes 182
REFERENCES 183
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 195
iv

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
CONSTRUCTIONS OF GENDER AND GENRE
IN CHANTAL CHAWAF1S RETABLE-LA REVERIE
By
Elizabeth I. Droppleman
May, 1999
Chairman: William C. Calin
Major Department: Romance Languages and Literatures
Chantal Chawaf's dazzling combinations of words, images
and metaphors forge new possibilities for conceptualizing
the body, particularly the female body. Nonetheless, she
remains a controversial figure among feminist and literary
critics who insist that traditional archetypes of woman and
established literary convention contaminate her avant-garde
practice of écriture féminine ("feminine writing").
In "Constructions of Gender and Genre," I argue that
Chawaf's excessive displays of gender and literary
convention in the novel Retable-la reverie form an integral
part of her mimetic strategy. This strategy entails a
hyperbolic performance of gender and genre norms that
actually parodies them. Undermining the norms of literary
and gender convention, her parody also subverts the values
that support and sustain them.
Rereading Retable-la reverie through the optic of a
feminist mimetic strategy sheds light on Chawaf's poetic and
narrative tactics, as well as her marginal place among
v

practitioners of écriture féminine. In effect, her novel is
a quintessential example of this radical practice. It not
only subverts traditional literary and generic norms, it
operates within, yet against, the establishment of écriture
féminine itself to expose and expand the boundaries of this
avant-garde writing practice.
Drawing from Luce Irigaray's practice of textual
mimicry and Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity,
Chapter One lays the theoretical groundwork for the study of
Chawaf's mimetic strategy.
Chapter Two examines the construction of the novel
through paratextual elements ranging from its material
borders--cover art, titles, headings--to the symbolic figure
of the womb that symbolizes the ethical dimension of
Chawaf's écriture féminine. Her maternal metaphor provides a
representation of radically different self/other relations:
a shift in the struggle for identity from a paradigm of
dominance/subordination to mutual recognition.
A close reading of the narrative, Chapter Three traces
how the stereotypes of Mother and Woman are subversively
reiterated as they are repeated in the narrative. Retable-la
reverie creates an imaginative performance of sexual
reborderization that is constantly negotiated through
Chawaf's writing of the body. Whether strategically using
myths of Woman or boundary markers of genre, Chawaf's
practice of écriture féminine remains faithful to the
subversion of established convention, and presents and
example par excellence of innovative avant-garde writing.
vi

INTRODUCTION
Combining startling sensuous images with flowing
lyrical prose, contemporary French novelist, playwright,
poet, and philosopher Chantal Chawaf stands as a distinctive
literary figure at this fin-de-siecle. While acknowledged by
some as one of the more inventive, experimental writers of
this century,1 she continues the rebellious French literary
tradition of writers who view fiction as a powerful form of
social and political resistance.
Praising Chawaf's literary talents, her critics
emphasize that her dazzling combinations of words, images,
and metaphors forge new possibilities for conceptualizing
the body, particularly the female body. Nonetheless, she
remains a polemical figure among feminist literary critics
who dismiss her texts for reifying traditional ways of
thinking about gender and sex. It is significant that, on
the one hand, she has been relatively neglected outside the
circles of feminist criticism, and that, within these
circles, some fault her for not apparently adhering to the
generally accepted ideological aesthetics of the movement.
Her subversive practice seems deeply flawed to feminist
critics who enter her texts searching for radical
innovation, yet find there, on both philosophical and
literary levels, the very masculinist norms they wished to
1

2
escape. To give form to her female characters, she draws
from a stereotypically female biological and material
register of mounds of flesh, mucus, and mother's milk. This
intense embodiment is interpreted as a sign of their
inherent powerlessness. Controversial for shocking
sensibilities and transgressing literary propriety, her
corporeal poetics provokes strong, e^fen visceral,
reactions.2 To a greater extent than her contemporaries, she
is blamed for having so explicitly "tied the practice of
feminine writing to the biological fact of motherhood"
(Suleiman, "Writing and Motherhood" 370).
Viewed as fundamentally contradictory in form and
content, Chawaf's innovative linguistic manipulation is said
to break with normative convention. Yet, adding fuel to the
charges of essentialism, her novels continue to rely upon
polarized, socially "fixed" stereotypes: the masculine
symbolizing the mind, the intelligible, culture, activity,
light; the feminine as the body, the irrational, the
sensible, nature, passivity, obscurity (224). Such
masculinist archetypes of woman, critics insist, contaminate
her avant-garde practice of écriture feminine. As Bosshard
remarks,
ce que nous montrent les couples chawafiens . . . c'est
1'affrontement des personnages féminins et masculins,
répartis dans des róles virils d'un cote et féminins
hypertrophiés de l'autre. (223)
Even if her poetic style aims to represent the body in
innovative ways, her writing reiterates an unenlightened
paradigm of woman's nature in critics' views. Like the

Virgin Mary and Dante's Beatrice, her female figures are
often likened to the bountiful Mother Earth: closer to
3
nature than males, and a medium of access through which man
can communicate with higher spiritual forces. In this
paradigm it seems that woman functions only in relation to
man; passive, she serves only in his quest for self-
knowledge. Reflector, supporter, and "nurturer of the male
ego" appears to be the only role played by Chawaf's women,
Valerie Hannagan observes (183) .
Aiming at a feminist vision of harmonious relations
between men and women, these relations in Chawaf's world, it
has been argued, are paradoxically often marked by a
depressive tone and marked by the failure of her female
protagonists to escape their alienation, as in Retable-la
reverie and L'Intérieur des heures. How could the repetition
of such stereotypes undermine binary logic and put into
question the symbolic exclusion of the feminine? It cannot,
Bosshard decides: "la bipolarisation des étres en sexe
masculin et sexe féminin persiste" (223). In the end, the
promise her writing holds for envisaging new male/female
relations remains unfulfilled, Hannagan argues. She conveys
the general opinion succinctly: Chawaf's "textual body is
rich in symptoms, but ultimately the redemption it seeks to
achieve is firmly grounded in the status quo" (190).
The contradictory reception of Chawaf's work, largely among
American feminist critics, can be explained, in part, by the
rise of the philosophical essentialist critique during the

4
1970s and 1980s. Now, however, the essentialist/
constructivist dichotomy is being rethought.3 An alliance
with sexual difference has been seen as a foundational move,
instead of taking into account the social constructionist
aspect of French feminist thought. In Bodies That Matter.
Butler proposes that the tradition to which Irigaray belongs
ultimately challenges the essentialist/constructivist
dichotomy at the basis of much feminist practice. Chawaf's
work can also be read through such a perspective. Rather
than setting limits to conceptualizations of sexuality, its
purpose, I propose, ultimately serves to put into question
the foundations and boundaries of discourses on sexuality.
Furthermore, the anti-establishment tenet as the
impetus for diverse practices of écriture féminine has often
been overlooked. The rubric écriture féminine groups
together an eclectic corpus of texts by radical female
intellectuals writing from the early 1970s to the present.4
Jaded by their male counterparts in the revolution of 1968,
these authors initiated their own revolt; they purloined the
intellectual and literary weapons of this still too
conventional peer group whose modus operandi was grounded in
the questioning of all established convention. Héléne Cixous
coined the phrase écriture féminine in her famous 1976
manifesto "Le Rire de la méduse," which underscores the
massive attack behind this practice aimed at the foundation
of masculine-biased institutions:
Un texte féminin ne peut pas ne pas étre plus que
subversif: s1il s'écrit, c'est en soulevant,

5
volcanique, la vieille croüte immobiliére, porteuse des
investissements masculins, et pas autrement; il n'y a
pas de place pour elle si elle n'est pas un il? Si elle
est elle-elle, ce n'est qu'á tout casser, á mettre en
pieces les batis des institutions, á faire sauter la
loi en l'air, á tordre la 'vérité' de rire. (49)
This writing practice aims to refute tradition by attacking
it at its core, by magnifying the operations of the literary
institution from within the terms of its own discourse in
order to shake up what appears to be the solid ground of its
assumptions. This explosive process aims to dismantle the
misogynous ethics behind model-copy representation. As
Chawaf says, she writes in order to,
arriver done á l'intérieur, quitter les surfaces . .
. parce qu'il remettrait tout en question, parce que
les privileges tomberaient. ("Ecrire á partir du corps
vivant" 119)
On what grounds, then, can critics repudiate Chawaf's
version of a practice that epitomizes the seditious values
of écriture féminine?
In this light, we can understand Chawaf's "roles
féminins hypertrophiés" and other excessive displays of
convention as anything but gratuitous. In effect, they form
an integral part of what I call her performative mimetic
strategy. While "mimesis" traditionally denotes the faithful
representation of nature, Chawaf's mimetic strategy entails
a hyperbolic performance of gender norms that actually
parodies them. The aim of her project is not simply to
mirror "reality" but, through a more complex notion of
referentiality, to interrogate the limits of thinking about
sexed bodies. This parodie, imitative tactic (what Cixous

6
refers to as the "elle-elle") seeks to highlight the
constructed aspect of gender norms through an insistence on
the slippage in meaning of the signifier. In doing so, it
challenges theories of the stability of the symbolic order,
and the supposed exclusion of the feminine from this realm.
Chawaf1s parodies serve to undermine not only gender
and representational norms but also the values that support
and sustain them. Mikhail Bakhtin has articulated the
transformative operation at work in parody. Through it,
language is transformed from the absolute dogma it had
been within the narrow framework of a sealed-off and
impermeable monoglossia into a working hypothesis for
comprehending and expressing reality. (61)
From his conception of parody, Suleiman notes that we arrive
at the
contemporary feminist . . . insight that the stories we
tell about reality construe the real, rather than
merely reflect it. Whence the possibility, or the hope,
that through the rewriting of old stories and the
invention of new forms of language for doing so, it is
the world as well as the words that will be
transformed. (143)
It is from within a tradition of analytic exposure that
Chawaf uses textual parody as a means toward recasting the
language and grammar of the symbolic order,5 exploring this
tactic's potential for symbolizing the feminine in hopes of
altering oppressive self/other relations.
Despite her emphasis on plurality and différance in
signification, Chawaf1s work continues to be denounced when
her écriture féminine fails to meet the standards that
critics have imposed. For example, her work has been
measured against a criterion of laughter celebrated in

7
Cixous1 "Rire de la méduse" and has been judged
insufficiently transgressive. Dismissing Chawaf's texts for
their lyrical tendencies, Suleiman implies that a
subversive, authentic écriture féminine would above all be
laughter provoking:
little of the writing thus produced was playful in the
ordinary sense of lighthearted, or just plain funny.
Annie Leclerc, Chantal Chawaf, and Julia Kristeva . . .
opted for the expansive lyric mode when writing as
mothers. Although lyric can be full of invention, it
does not offer much possibility for humor or parody.
(168)
If parody and irony are loaded signifiers with multiple
meanings, should this element in Chawaf's writing be
discounted simply because it does not provoke laughter in
the narrow sense?
According to Chawaf, critics' brief honeymoon with
écriture féminine in the 70s ended when its unsettling
implications began to come of light:
On a été un temps amoureux socialement de 1'écriture
féminine en se gardant bien d'aller voir la
métaphysique qui se cachait derriére. Quoiqu'on écrive
de neuf, on risque d'etre lu par des habitudes
millénaires qui chercheront á nous réprimer. (43)
She attributes critics' initial enthusiasm for écriture
féminine, and their fairly rapid decline in interest, to a
refusal to examine the disturbing philosophy it brought to
light: a metaphysics of the repressed feminine. As my
analysis of Chawaf's texts through the critical framework
provided by Irigaray and Butler will demonstrate, to
understand Chawaf's work from another optic would mean to
challenge thinking based on binary oppositions--even to the

point of questioning the sex/gender distinction at the basis
of feminist practice. Considering the role language plays in
constructing the sex/gender split appears to work against
the ends that feminist practices stand and strive for. How
could feminism proceed, critics argue, without relying on
the stability of sex as a foundation? Butler consents that
it could not at this time. For political reasons, the
sex/gender distinction must be maintained, if only
tactically. Within feminism, "sex" is the site of woman's
oppression and as such is a concept that enables feminist
practice. However, a systematic questioning of the
foundation is not the same as discarding it altogether.
Instead, such interrogation might reveal the possible
function of "sex" as a constraining limit and lead to new
ways of thinking about--and a new ethics of--sexual
difference.
This study interrogates the limits critics have imposed
on Chawaf's écriture féminine in order to demonstrate how
her project is a quintessential example of this radical
practice; in effect, her writing not only undermines
traditional gender norms, it works within, yet against, the
established standards for écriture féminine itself in order
to expose and expand the boundaries of this avant-garde
writing practice.
Chapter One examines the philosophical thought of
feminist philosophers Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler, that
I believe useful for the analysis of Chawaf1s oeuvre.

9
Rereading her work in the context of Irigaray's "mimétisme"
and Butler's theory of gender performativity can refine the
understanding of the concept of matter important to her
textual and ethical strategies in support of a theory of
sexual difference.
As Irigaray and Butler demonstrate, the concept of
matter has been largely seen as outside social, historical,
and cultural structures. Irigaray and Butler seek to expose
the idea of the exteriority of form to matter that
conditions discourses on identity formation.6 Rereading
foundational philosophical texts, they simultaneously aim to
refigure concepts of the body and materiality within this
tradition. Irigaray and Butler challenge the authority of
philosophical discourse, revealing the extent to which the
latter is historically shaped and biased, highly literary,
and often paradoxically dependent on those elements the
authors' thought attempts to devalorise. When seen as a
product of, as well as productive of, social types of power,
matter can become a site of resistance to oppression.
The first part of Chapter One discusses aspects of
Irigaray's work that provide the groundwork for Chawaf's
mimetic strategy and Butler's performative theory. It
explores how Irigaray, through textual mimicry,
systematically questions the conditions, and exclusions, of
the production of matter within Freudian psychoanalysis and
Aristotelian philosophy. The feminine has been excluded from
these discourses, she claims, and the result is by no means

10
neutral: it is a more or less unconscious strategy for
denying sexual difference, thereby perpetuating male
privilege. Her close textual readings provide insights for
understanding how material bodies and the symbolic realm in
which they signify are marked by social, cultural,
historical, and literary contexts (24).
Expanding Irigaray's line of inquiry, Butler draws not
only from philosophy and psychoanalysis but also from the
linguistic theory of performative speech acts, in order to
conceptualize a broader framework for understanding identity
formation and agency. She argues that philosophical
statements are not purely constative, that is, descriptive
statements about the nature of things. To embrace this line
of thinking would be comparable to understanding mimesis as
the faithful representation of nature. Philosophical
statements are also performative, she claims, productive of
the situation they appear to be describing. Butler's theory
of the social construction of "sex" as a performative
process involves the repetitive citing of norms and
conventions, forming and constraining over time the human
agent through the threat of prohibition. Continually in
process, the boundaries of body types are marked through the
repeated invocation of gender norms. Yet, this reiteration
of norms proves ambivalent. Although it may be the occasion
for shoring up the norm, Butler contends that it also
provides the possibility for its subversion. Rethinking
Chawaf's écriture féminine as a performative tactic broadens

our understanding of this avant-garde practice and its
potential as a strategy for transforming the social
structure of oppression.
11
Chapters Two and Three address Chawaf's mimetic
strategy and its subversive use of gender norms and generic
convention in her first and most important work, Retable-la
reverie. Chapter Two examines some aspects of the novel's
paratext. As formulated by Gerard Genette, paratextual
elements belong to a realm mediating between text and world,
writer and reader, where meaning remains open to
negotiation.7 An exploration of the paratext provides
insights into how Retable-la reverie's construction
interrogates ways of thinking about bodies and texts, and
the links between the two. Chawaf' s use of the maternal
metaphor is discussed in light of her mimetic strategy. An
expanded use of metaphor, the figure of the pregnant womb is
understood in the context of Irigaray's phenomenology of
proximity--an alternative to specular theories of subject
formation.
I also argue that Chawaf exploits paratextual elements
as possible sites of symbolic transformation. The titles,
the cover art, and the work's divisions signal a shift from
representation to the scenography of representation, from
attention to what is represented to how it is shown and
received. In order to prepare the reader to accommodate her
non-conventional use of generic and gender convention in the
narrative, she emphasizes the function of the paratextual

12
elements to encourage reflection on modes of reading signs.
Such an emphasis aims to effect the cognitive shifts
necessary for new ways of thinking about the body and the
text--accenting the dynamic functioning of language and its
performative power to reconceptualize the symbolic.
Chapter Three offers a close reading of the double
novel, Retable-La reverie, exploring feminine writing of the
body as a subversive mimetic strategy and a locus of
metamorphosis. It examines the protagonist's quest to
uncover the truth about her birth mother and her attempts to
refigure the maternal-feminine through the act of writing.
It demonstrates how Chawaf's use of hyperbolic poetic
language enacts a performance of gender norms, co-opting
stereotypical conceptions of female materiality and desire
in a subtle, paradoxical way in order to undermine them.
Crossing back through the images and language historically
employed to devalorise the feminine she criticizes their
traditional usage. Simultaneously, through metaphor, she
expands the conception of the maternal-feminine, developing
a poesis that attempts to create a space for the expression
of her specifically feminine desire.
Notes
1 Among others, see Colette Nys-Mazure, "Chantal
Chawaf: 1Rougeátre1," Les Cahiers du GRIF (1978): 179-80;
Francine de Martinoir, "Territoires sur fond ténébreux," La
Ouinzaine littéraire 498 (1987): 8; Jacques Vandenschrick,
"Corinna Bille et Chantal Chawaf, saintes écritures du
désir..." La Revue nouvelle 69.4 (1979): 434-38; Monique

13
Nagem, afterword, Mother Love: Mother Earth, by Chantal
Chawaf, trans. Monique F. Nagem (Hamden: Garland, 1992) 101-
111; Christiane P. Makward and Judith G. Miller, eds.,
foreword, "Warmth: A Bloodsong," trans. Christiane P.
Makward, Judith G. Miller, and Cynthia Running-Johnson, in
Plavs bv French and Francophone Women (Ann Arbor: Univ.
Michigan Press, 1994) 233-46.
2 In "De Retable á RougeStre," Chawaf recounts, not
without a note of pleasure, an anecdote testifying to
readers' intense bodily reactions: "Deux ou trois hommes
aprés la lecture de Blé de semences se sont précipités au
lavabo pour y vomir" (88). Such responses approach Cixous'
criterion for écriture féminine: "Les vrais textes de
femmes, des textes avec des sexes de femmes, pa ne leur fait
pas plaisir,- pa les écoeure" ("Rire de la Méduse" 40) .
3 See Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive
Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993); Carolyn Burke,
Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford, eds., Engaging with
Irigarav: Feminist Philosophy and Modern European Thought
(New York: Columbia UP, 1994) ; Margaret Whitford, Luce
Irigarav: Philosophy in the Feminine (London: Routledge,
1991); Linda J. Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism (London:
Routledge, 1990); Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation:
Ethical Feminism. Deconstruction, and the Law (New York:
Routledge, 1991).
4 As an author transgressive of convention and
tradition, it is not surprising that Chawaf herself does not
use this epithet to describe her own practice. Although in
the 1970s the classification served a purpose in promoting a
certain type of woman's literature, Chawaf believes that, in
the long run, it also served to erode the legitimacy of such
threatening writing: "Mes livres ont subi ce que les femmes
ont subi. On a préféré jouir d'eux plutdt de les comprendre"
("L'action du langage" 43). Despite Chawaf's reservations, I
have chosen to retain the epithet for the purposes of this
study. Sometimes the most effective way to be heard, perhaps
the only way as, Irigaray reminds us, is to participate in
the term of the discourse one is criticizing. This label,
after all, has been useful in facilitating the defense and
illustration of feminine writing.
5 The "symbolic" is used throughout this dissertation
in the Lacanian sense, as the linguistic dimension of the
social order in which sexual identity may be constructed.
See Jacques Lacan, "Fonction et champ de la^parole et du
langage en psychanalyse," Ecrits I (Paris: Editions du
Seuil, 1966) pp. 111-208.

14
5 Although Butler draws heavily from Irigaray in her
discussion of the form/matter dichotomy, she also condemns
Irigaray for essentialism. This paradox inherent in Butler's
criticism of Irigaray is discussed at length in Chapter One.
7 In Gerard Genette, Seuils (Paris: Editions du Seuil,
1987) .

CHAPTER ONE
MIMICRY AND PERFORMATIVITY
No body, for Irigaray, exists unmediated by textuality.
Never completely biologically predetermined, bodies are
socially constructed in a complex and shifting way,
"penetrated and disciplined by discourse, gender codes, by
culture" (Diamond 154). Philosophical conceptualizations
(such as knowledge, the idea, the subject, and substance)
play an active role in constructing and interpreting the
"reality" of sexed bodies, she contends, and each bodily
form is invested with a cultural value. Irigaray views
bodies, then, as not just the sum of their biological parts,
but also as produced and conditioned within a social matrix.
Her thesis is that this social order is sexually-
indifferent.1 As such, it deprives women of subjectivity as
well as of their own relation to language, and therefore the
possibility of speaking their desires and dreams.2 As a
result, the lack of feminine subjectivity has dire economic,
political, and social consequences for the lives of women
and of men.
One way to understand the link between bodies and texts
is through Irigaray1s conceptualization of the Imaginary. In
Luce Irictarav. Philosophy in the Feminine. Margaret Whitford
explains Irigaray's expanded use of this term. It is not
simply a synonym for unconscious fantasy (as in Lacanian
15

psychoanalytic theory): it also connotes, in the Sartrian
sense, an "intentional object of the imagining
16
consciousness," encompassing internal fantasies (i.e.
daydreams) as well as external products such as literature
and art (54) . In addition, a Bachelardian influence can be
traced in her idea that the four elements underlie the
imagination and condition individuals' passions, limits, and
aspirations.
Not only is the Imaginary organized by air, fire,
water, and earth, Irigaray claims, but at the most basic
level it is marked by sex. As such, the Imaginary can be a
powerful creative source for change. On a discursive level,
she characterizes products of the male imaginary as
singular, linear, and involving a unified, static identity
as opposed to those of the nonlinear, plural feminine of
fluid identity. Ethiaue de la difference sexuelle opens with
the statement that sexual difference is the major
philosophical question of the late twentieth century (5). To
Irigaray, it is only through the understanding of this
concept at the level of discourse--a recognition of female
sexual difference--that transformation in the condition of
women can be effected.3
Irigaray attacks the problem of sexual (in)difference
through a close look at the scene of representation, and the
role played by the mirror and matter. In textual re-
readings, she deploys a tactic of mimicry ("mimétisme").
From such a perspective, she aims to unveil the exclusionary

17
logic of sexual indifference as a first step toward thinking
a post-patriarchal space where woman's difference can be
symbolized.
The first half of this chapter explores Irigaray's
understanding of mimesis, the mirror, and the concept of
matter, as well as the tactic of mimicry deployed in her
critique of Freud's theories of sexuality and in her re¬
reading of Plato's allegory for the production of forms. The
second half of this discussion elaborates Butler's theory of
gender performativity. The framework developed by Irigaray
and Butler offers insights for interpreting Chawaf's
écriture féminine.
Sexual (In)Difference. Representation, and Matter
Derrida's now familiar critique of the scene of
representation demonstrates how the patriarchal order is
organized by a dialectical and hierarchial system of
binaries (i.e., male/female, form/matter, mind/body,
culture/nature, activity/passivity), the first term
privileged over the second.1 While some feminist theory
seeks to revalorize the negative/feminine poles of this
binary structure, for Irigaray this strategy proves flawed:
"II ne s'agit pas de renverser." It is not a question of
replacing male privilege with female privilege even if that
were possible, since "cela reviendrait finalement au méme"
ÍCS 67; TS 68) .5 Critiques of woman as "other" in relation
to the male subject and the demand for sexual equality might
serve a consciousness-raising function, but ultimately, she

18
argues, they do not question the bases of phallogocentric
logic.
Instead of reiterating that the feminine occupies the
negative, devalorized realm in these binary oppositions,
Irigaray claims that the dichotomies themselves do not
represent a system of differences. Rather, the second term
mirrors the first and as such seeks to exclude otherness
altogether. The traditional philosophical conception of
"woman" (the "other of the same"), is actually just a
negative mirror image of the masculine, produced and
conditioned through the hidden phallic specular relationship
to the masculine (the "self-same"). Within this
"hom(m)osexual" economy based on a standard of oneness, she
maintains that sexual difference does not yet exist. Both
poles of the binary are actually masculinist constructions
participating in a theatrical mirror game, repressing the
Other, the feminine and the material, in order to fortify
male supremacy. Ofelia Schutte describes the distinction
between the other of the same and Irigaray's Other:
In this tradition, the Other is that which exceeds
and subverts the self, not the Hegelian other who
desires a reciprocity of recognition and who is
ultimately considered a counterpart to the self.
Irigaray uses the term Other in the sense of what
is radically Other and irreducible to the master
consciousness--the excluded, the very marginal,
the unconscious, the excessive, the mysterious,
the superfluous. (50)
To support her argument, Irigaray uncovers how the
operation of philosophical discourse is contingent upon

masked variables that sustain truth claims. These figures
of philosophical discourse include,
19
. . . la "matiére" dont se nourrit le sujet
parlant pour se produire, se reproduire,- la
scénoaraohie qui rend praticable la représentation
telle qu'elle se définit en philosophie, c'est-á-
dire 1'architectonique de son théátre, son cadrage
de 1'espace-temps, son économie géométrique, son
ameublement, ses acteurs, leurs positions
respectives, leurs dialogues, voire leurs rapports
tragiques, sans oublier le miroir, le plus souvent
masqué, qui permet au logos, au sujet, de se
redoubler, de se réfléchir, lui-méme. (CS 72-73;
TS 75)
The use of a theatrical trope for exploring representations
demonstrates how philosophical discourse itself is
conditioned. As Timothy Murray notes,
What is theorized or understood as "real" or
"material" or even "historical" remains contingent
on its mise-en-scene, that is, on the means with
which it is represented as well as on the context
of its reception. (Mimesis. Masochism, and Mime 7)
The figure of performance can be viewed as a "third" term
that exceeds the binary paradigms perpetuating repressive
mental structures such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism.
Within this theatrical scenography, through the specular
operation and the conceptualization of matter, sexual
difference is conditioned, produced, and comes to signify--
or as Irigaray claims, does not.6 Her thesis is that in
traditional philosophy the concept of matter is excluded
from, yet supports the patriarchal scene. It provides
substance and sustenance for the male subject that enables
his reproduction as the sex that matters. This culturally
and historically mediated scene of representation conditions
(male) subjectivity and sexual (in)difference.

20
Irigaray argues that the language of the symbolic is
sustained by material elements, and that the feminine has
historically served as this material support. Etymologically
bound to mater and matrix (the mother, the womb), feminine
matter functions as the support or grounding of the system
that upholds male privilege. The nourishing matter outside
the scene of representation is the maternal-feminine; it
provides the foundation of the system, and enables "la
puissance de sa systématicité, la force de sa cohésion . . .
la généralité de sa loi" (CS 72; TS 74). Western philosophy,
including feminist discourse, proceeds as if matter lay
outside this scenography instead of taking part in its
formation. Significantly, her argument implies that through
the repression of the maternal-feminine, masked as an appeal
to a higher "truth," phallogocentric logic and the supremacy
of the male subject are maintained. In Irigaray's view,
philosophy's most urgent imperative at this time is to
reveal this aporia through interpretation.
The Mirror and Mimétisme
Irigaray1s theory of specular identity formation and
the constitution of sexual difference through language is
indebted to structuralist, psychoanalytic, and post¬
structuralist thinking.7 In Saussure's concept of linguistic
meaning, there is no inherent link between signifier and
signified, words and reality. He explains how words come to
mean within a symbolic system of language and shows that
signify relationally. Foucault applies this linguistic

21
structuralist thinking to his conceptualization of social
identity formation. On an individual or group level, he
says, we form our identity only in relation to others,
through dis-identification from them.8 This is not to say
that if we dis-identify with the other, we posit the Other's
difference, but rather that the other in this Hegelian
schema, as Schutte says, exists only as a counterpart to the
self. In other words, the specular relation effectively
negates others' difference. This process is linked to the
perception of one's own self-image and psychic boundaries.
If identity is formed through such a hierarchy of
dominance, Foucault argues, there must some relationship
between the two. However, in order to assure the subject's
primacy over the other, this rapport or resemblance and its
accompanying elements of difference must be repressed.
Furthermore, in order to sustain a prevailing ideology, the
means by which social supremacy is attained, and maintained,
must be concealed. As Irigaray says in her description of
the scenography, "Toutes interventions dans la scéne qui,
restées ininterprétées, assurent sa cohérence" (CS 73; TS
75). A set of norms dictated by a socially powerful group
serves to screen how that power is attained. With recourse
to norms, social 'laws' are created to dictate the true, the
good and the normal over the false, the bad, and the
abnormal. Through the injunction of these cultural 'laws'
produced within patriarchy, those who do not fall within a
standard of male heterosexuality are subject to forms of

22
social punishment: rejection, repudiation, and disavowal.
The consequences, Irigaray argues, lead to social and
economic injustice, as well as psychological and physical
injury.
How can this (masculine) logic be exposed? A break with
the patriarchal order, which is supported and sustained by
philosophical theory, is not feasible. One cannot simply
step outside the language of this deep-seated, historically-
laden scene. Instead, Irigaray argues that focusing on the
process of how discourse and cultural systems of
signification mean can reveal flaws in their logic. It is
through representational fissures that she glimpses
possibilities for reconfiguring the symbolic. To contest the
foreclosure of feminine representation and desire within the
specular economy, the figures of philosophical discourse
must be reopened.
C'est bien le discours philosophique qu'il faut
questionner, et dérancrer. en tant qu'il fait la
loi á tout autre, qu'il constitue le discours des
discours. (CS 72; TS 74)
A feminist critique interested in transforming the
patriarchal system must subvert it from within. It must take
a closer look at the variables in play (matter and the
mirror), and "les faire rejouer, dans chaqué figure du
discours, pour le déconcerter . . . á entreprendre de
'détruire' le fonctionnement discursif" (CS 73; TS 75).
Through her own process of mirroring, which mimes the
phallo-specular relation, Irigaray uncovers the negation and

suppression of both matter and the feminine within the
Western philosophical tradition.
23
Irigaray's tactic is not simply a repetition of the
self-same in which she seeks to run away with the power of
the dominant group or to reinstitute, for the feminine, the
same sort of oppressive regime. Such a reversal of power
would still operate within the structure dictated by
patriarchal thinking. A whole new idea of woman needs to be
conceptualized, along with new relations to language and to
power, for being a subject in language is a condition for
social subjectivity. As Irigaray, Chawaf, Cixous, and others
have argued since the early 1970s, as long as the concept of
woman is used to construct (man's) language, she has no
access to her own.
Irigaray's subversive textual practice does not seek to
determine what woman is nor to definitively define her, but
rather to understand the system in which a conception of
woman without social subjectivity is reiterated as the norm.
II fallait, en effet, un discours qui prenne comme
enjeu la sexualité méme pour que ce qui
fonctionnait comme condition de possibilité du
discours philosophique, de la rationalité en
général, se donne á entendre. (CS 162; TS 168)
It would initiate the possibility of thinking woman outside
the realm of the "other of the same." Irigaray's texts pose
the question of the "Other of the Other," which Lacan
proclaims does not exist. For the nonce, she agrees, "La/une
femme fait signe vers 1'indéfinissable, 1'inénumération . .
. nom commun indéterminable quant á une identité" (SP, 285;

24
SPE 230). For now, "La femme étayera ce redoublement
spéculaire, renvoyant á l'homme 'son' image, le répétant
comme 'méme'" (SP 63; SPE 54). But keep in mind that
Irigaray's vision of systematicity is dynamic. The exclusion
of woman makes possible the "closure" of philosophical
discourse: it provides the illusion that the system is self-
sustaining. What, Irigaray wonders, would happen to the
specular relation if an other mirror, "un image 'autre,' un
miroir 'autre'" were to intervene in the system (SP 63; SPE
54)? A scenario exposing possible difference within the
order of the self-same would "signifie toujours le risque
d'une crise mortelle" for the existence of the sexually
indifferent, feminine-repudiating logic (SP 63; SPE 54).
How, then, can one begin to unleash this crisis, to
subvert the systematicity at play in the specular theater?
Through a poetics of the body, a strategy of "mimétisme"
(mimicry, camouflage), which would reveal, Irigaray insists,
a premise that the master philosophers did not explore:
"qu'il pourrait éventuellement s'agir d'un méme mais autre
miroir. Miroir concave peut-étre? Pour réfléchir un autre et
méme miroir" (SP 307; SPE 248). A tactical stance true to
the basic tenet of écriture féminine, Irigaray's mimicry
appropriates the modus operandi of reflection and
replication, but manipulates the tools of the specular to
her own ends. Her strategy of reversal and displacement aims
to transfigure "en affirmation une subordination, et, de ce
fait, commenper á la déjouer" (CS 73-4; TS 76). She enters

25
the phallogocentric realm through the linguistic doors it
inevitably leaves open, penetrating philosophical discourse
by addressing it on its own terms:
Jouer de la mimésis, c'est done, pour une femme,
tenter de retrouver le lieu de son exploitation
par le discours, sans s'y laisser simplement
réduire. C'est se resoumettre -- en tant que du
c6té du 'sensible', de la 'matiere' . . . á des
'idées', notamment d'elle, élaborées dans/par une
logique masculine, mais pour faire 'apparaitre',
par un effet de répétition ludique, ce qui devait
rester occulté: le recouvrement d'une possible
opération du féminin dans le langage. C'est aussi
'dévoiler' le fait que, si les femmes miment si
bien, c'est qu'elles ne se résorbent pas
simplement dans cette fonction. Elies restent
aussi ailleurs: autre insistence de 'matiére',
mais aussi de 'jouissance.' (CS 74; TS 76)
Through a close look at each aspect of this mise-en-
scene, she reexamines
le fonctionnement de la 'grammaire' de chaqué
figure du discours, ses lois ou nécessités
syntaxiques, ses configurations imaginaires, ses
réseaux métaphoriques et aussi . . . ses silences
(CS 73; TS 75)
in order to demonstrate that the specular system of
reproduction, of mimesis, always already contains the
seeds of its own undoing.
Irigaray's call to textual play is not to be taken
lightly, for the passage from "jouer" to "jouissance" is
simultaneously political and ethical, an interrogation and
an affirmation. Characterized by a series of double lexical
movements, this quotation illustrates the procedure it
describes, relying on equivocal figures of speech in order
to render one definitive reading dubious. "Jouer (de)"
delivers the meanings, both playful and serious, of the act

26
of mimicry: interpreting, camouflaging, taking advantage of
to one's profit, making fun of, and risking.9 Infinitives
and pronominal verbs lead us through the passage ("jouer,"
"tenter de retrouver, 11 "faire apparaitre, " "dévoiler, " "s'y
laisser," "se resoumettre," "se resorbent") and make an
ethical statement about subjectivity and language. Not bound
to the subject, infinitives are impersonal. Their
positioning slides from and to both subject and object. The
pronominal verbs designate a movement of reciprocity--a
mutual action between two people--as well as a self-
reflexive action. These latter may connote a collective or a
singular that has the value of a plural. What must remain
secret in master philosophical discourse, is "le
recouvrement" of an operation of the feminine: both the
covering over and recovery of feminine matter. In the double
movement of her mimicry, to reveal the covering over is also
to gesture towards the recovery of woman's "jouissance." The
illness is not fatal; the debt and her rights can be
recouped.
Irigaray describes something resistant in the concept
of (feminine) matter that enables a miming subversion unable
to be riveted definitively in place: "elles ne se résorbent
pas simplement dans cette function." They do not disappear
altogether in this dissimulation. Rather, this "résorption"
can be likened to passage through a mucus membrane that
Irigaray theorizes as the middle-passive, a place of
threshold allowing free-flowing entrance or exit. The

27
middle-passive can be understood in relation to her concept
of the interval or envelope: an elasticity through which two
beings encounter each other as subjects. The contiguous
meanings, like two individuals in a relation of generous,
non-selfish desire, lead to "jouissance" in all senses of
the term: as sexual pleasure, as active participation ("se
servir de quelque chose"), and as attainment of legal rights
(becoming "titulaire").
To re-explore the site of woman's exploitation, to
probe the dark continent of the repressed feminine, Irigaray
penetrates the threshold of the scene of representation with
another mimetic tool: a speculum. The term speculum, linked
etymologically to sight ("specere"), designates an
instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection, most
often for gynecological examinations. What more appropriate
tool could a feminist practice use for the exploration of
passages of the body, both material and textual, and sexual
difference? Playing on the difference of this exploratory
instrument designed for the female genitals allows her to
look at representation from a previously obscured feminine
perspective.
With her passage-opening speculum, a trope for
critically rereading theory--and copy of the Self-same
mirror with a sexual difference--Irigaray mimes foundational
philosophical texts. Reiterating the words of the masters,
she effects subtle subversions in their discourse. Through
this mode of introducing (an)other voice into texts, she

28
puts into question sometimes explicitly, sometimes
implicitly, the "fonctionnement discursif": the system of
metaphor that allows the substitution of the masculine for
the feminine, and the repression of the maternal-feminine.
Tracing how the system of thought was constructed in
order to expose the gaps of both metaphor and concept, she
deconstructs philosophical texts through their own logic. In
doing so, she reveals the paradoxical moves made that give
their arguments the appearance of cohesion. Although this
poetics, "a mimicry that undermines the referent's
authority," echoes modernist gestures toward the non-
referentiality of language,10 hers is one with a feminine
difference (Diamond 62). Instead of replacing the
masculine/male with feminine/female bias, she reveals these
binary concepts to be postures.
Rereading Plato
For exposing sexual indifference and initiating a
process of cultural and linguistic transformation, Irigaray
cites Plato's myth of the cave as a good point of departure.
"L'hystera de Platon," the last essay in Speculum, returns
to the most fundamental of western philosophy's beginnings
in order to explore the question of sexual (in)difference.
In Book 7 of The Republic. Plato's parable approaches
epistemological questions of primary concern to Irigaray:
What things are real? What constitutes their reality? How
can we know? How do we know we know? Her rereading
demonstrates how Plato's myth does not simply seek knowledge

29
about what is "real," but his text actually operates
performatively, producing and conditioning a "reality" that
excludes matter and the maternal-feminine in order to serve
his own ends. Through repetition that magnifies the elements
constituting the cave-womb scene, Irigaray highlights the
stakes involved in Plato's metaphorical representation:
Dilemme, oscillation, indécision, dont on ne
sortira pas sans interpréter 1'intérét, les
intéréts, en jeu. A qui, á quoi, profitent les
crédits investis dans l'efficace d'une telle
métaphoricité, dans de tels quadrillages et
définitions des pions du jeu, dans 11 attribution
de ces critéres différentiels aux pieces de
l'échiquier, dans cette hiérarchie de valeurs
comme enjeu, régles, et soldé de la partie. (SP
335; SPE 269-70)
Plato constructs an elaborate scene, which he likens to
a theater, in order to illustrate the difference between
true and false representations. Thus he sets the stage for
dichotomous illusion. In describing the production of Forms,
he creates a metaphorical system for differentiating between
the good/true/real and the bad/false/illusory. The Form, in
referring both to species and shape, is central to
Irigaray's broader concerns of legitimacy and exclusion:
what is valued as human and how it accrues value--through
morphology--both of the body and of language. Announcing her
argument in the title "Plato's Hystera," Irigaray
establishes from the outset that the cave-world at the basis
of Plato's metaphor is actually the womb robbed of its
reproductive function. His scenario offers up a "tentative
de métaphorisation, procés de détournement, qui prescrit,

30
silencieusement, la métaphysique occidentale," that requires
that the womb-mother-earth be forgotten, erased, and left
behind in a quest for Truth and Knowledge (SP 301; SPE 243).
While purported to represent the feminine, the matter that
figures within his scene is conditioned by phallic logic.
Irigaray points out that there is a second, "inarticulate"
matter covered over by Plato's specular feminine, "the Other
of the Other." As Butler says, this matter "designates the
constitutive outside of the Platonic economy; it is what
must be excluded for that economy to posture as internally
coherent" (BTM 151) .11 The patriarchal world/scene of
representation founds the sexual indifference reflected in
model-copy mimesis and sustained by the operation of the
mirror that Irigaray traces to the psychoanalytic discourse
on sexuality.
Within this representation the inhabitants live in a
cave-womb of the earth, chained to their places, facing
forward, "étant immobilisés par 1'impossibilité de se
retourner, ou retourner, vers l'origine, vers l'hystera" (SP
303; SPE 245). They view a stage where statues illuminated
by a fire from behind cast shadows upon the backdrop, the
screen of the theater. Chained as they are, they do not see
that their perspective is only partial. Although the
prisoners only see one dim light, one set of images and
shadows, only hear one set of accompanying voices, each
aspect of Plato's cave is doubled in a larger realm, the
world, and further in the world of Ideas. As Irigaray points

31
out, in this "cáveme ou 'monde' . . . tout ne serait
qu'images d'images" (SP 305; SPE 246). Plato draws analogies
first between these first and second realms, then between
the second and third. Each set of copies, doublings, and
substitutions visually perceivable is hierarchically ordered
and more highly valued as it moves from the earth-mother-
cave to the realm of Ideas. For Plato, each form produced is
a copy of an unknowable Ideal Form--an a priori origin
outside knowledge. The Ideal is one of a kind, self-
identical, the pure model for its copies that are individual
things (bodies, actions, shapes, and objects). It sets the
normative standard against which all copies can be measured
but is itself exempt from interrogation. This system of
analogy and of substitution, is also one of estimated worth.
Copies have more or less value based on their position in
the analogy chain that leads to Truth, Reality, and
Knowledge. The closer that copies resemble the Ideal Form,
the better, the truer, the more real they are.
Plato's system of likeness sustains its illusion "par
une alternance réglée de répliques oú les interférences et
bruits du fond de l'entretien sont d'entrée de jeu réduit"
(SP 258-9) . Through her amplifying mime, Irigaray attempts
to displace the authority of Plato's word by turning up the
volume--magnifying the ideal of truth underlying and
legitimating his metaphors,
figures, qui représenteront 1'intervention des
femmes, sans voix, sans présence. Féminin,
maternel, d'emblée glacés par le 'comme', le
'comme si' de cette représentation, masculine,

32
dominée par ... la ressemblance, l'identité. (SP
329; SPE 265)
Her mimicry gives voice to silenced material and sensible
background elements, lends an ear to barely perceptible
sounds, and fleshes out the tactile.
Plato's analogies conceal the fact that all the copies
and images rely on a material support (the projection screen
of the cave, the water reflecting men and objects, the veil
barring passage to the world of Ideas). Through metaphor
Plato's argument progresses away from the archetypally
feminine supports of mirror, water, and veil and bars
passage to them: "passage oblitéré entre le dehors et le
dedans, le haut et le bas, 1'intelligible et le sensible . .
. Le 'pére' et la 'mere' (SP 431; SPE ). As Irigaray
demonstrates, Plato, the mother's child, "est en train de
dépouiller les membranes par trop matérielles, les héritages
par trop physiques" (SP 397-98; SP 318). Once in the world
of Ideas, the eyes that facilitate sight/knowledge are no
longer attributed to the body but to the soul. The movement
from the body-mother-earth to the mind-father-soul
corresponds to a progression from illusion to Truth,
illusory copy to true original, the sensible to the
intelligible. Chained and unable to move about, the common
man lives in a world associated with matter, while the
proper philosopher would be the man capable of exiting the
dangerous cave-womb and proceeding toward the blinding light
of the Ideal/Truth/Reason. The philosopher's ascent towards
intelligibilty requires leaving behind the material place of

33
his origination. At his final destination, Plato manages to
conceal the connections between his world of the mind and
the realm of the senses.
Plato himself employs a familial metaphor to describe
the scenario. In keeping with his logic, the mother should
participate in reproduction. Yet, he renders her powerless,
depriving her of contribution to the production of forms.
She figures only as the receptacle for its enactment. He
places
a prohibition on resemblance (mimeta), which is to
say that [in Plato's text] this nature cannot be
said to be like either the eternal Forms or their
material, sensible, or imaginary copies. (BTM 153)
It is Plato's paradoxical use of metaphor prohibiting
resemblance that produces the nonspecular feminine as the
outlawed element and makes possible a scene of
representation based on likeness. "A whole system of
kinship--that is, in this case, of analogy--makes contact
between them impractical. The economy of metaphor that is in
control keeps them apart" (SP 346). And yet Irigaray shows
clearly that Plato's metaphor is catachrestic; it strips the
mother of the reproductive power to create a form/copy that
would resemble her. Neither form nor copy, she has no status
in ontology; hers is a "nonthematizable materiality" which
cannot be said to exist at all.
Despite Plato's attempts to strip the feminine of its
power, Irigaray maintains that what is repressed in a
symbolic systems "régit-il, sans (r)appel, le texte méme qui
maintient sa prohibition" (SP 314; SPE 253). Philosophy as

34
we know it cannot proceed without excluding the feminine
from the form/matter binary. To understand this, "II suffit
d'en questionner la surdétermination. De démasquer les
figures, formes, signes, qui assurent sa cohérence présente"
(SP 314; SPE 253). By exposing the concealed elements of
Plato's scene, Irigaray's light reveals a passage forgotten
by Plato, the "forgotten vagina." Playing on the homophony
of "entre" and "antre," she argues that this passage is what
enables movement between worlds, "cet entre deux 'mondes',
modes"--the specular and excessive feminines12 (SP 305; SPE
246). With a fuller view of the cave-world, the captive
philosopher would be overtaken by vertigo. Spinning, senses
reeling, losing perspective "de ce retournement," he will no
longer be able to reconcile his two points of view (SP 335;
SPE 256) . But the philosopher able to unchain himself and
move towards the light-knowledge is not subject in Plato's
world to such a destabilizing, doubly visual effect of the
cave-womb-mother. Instead, he masters disorder through
relations of likeness. Irigaray's mimicry reveals that
Toute une conception s'arréte la[ . . . ]sur--
1'illusion d'une métaphorique propre, d'une
métamétaphorique, postulée par la préséance de la
vérité qui décide, par avance, du déroulement de
l'entretien, des inter-ventions. (SP 325; SPE 261-
62)
Irigaray's rereading triggers a sort of Gestalt shift
in perception that would reveal how Plato's metaphor depends
on the suppression of the maternal-feminine. For example,
just as some elements of the cave are visible while others
are invisible, some inhabitants of Plato's cave speak while

35
others are prohibited from doing so. Absent and silent
elements function as the reflecting screen necessary for the
reproduction of the same. The coherence of his argument
necessitates silence, "car si tous parlaient, parlaient en
méme temps, le bruit de fond rendrait difficile, sinon
impossible, ce procés de redoublement que constitue l'écho"
(SP 318; SPE 257) . To create a quiet backdrop for the words
of the selected few, the multiplicity of voices must be
reduced. Moreover, in order to mask his omissions and to
sustain his narrative as being logical, Plato posits the
silence of the background elements of the scenography as
neutral. "Qui soutiennent la fiction de termes propres á
chaqué un, et á chaqué chose, susceptibles d'etre reproduits
comme tels (SP 319; SPE 257). Discourse, as Irigaray shows
through her critique of Freud and Plato, does not merely
reflect reality or describe how things are, but instead
performs the illusion that they are only one way. Miming
Plato's text, rendering visible the invisible, Irigaray
offers momentary glimpses beyond the borders which enclose
his thought and which prohibit a feminine operation within
language. Despite his attempts to control metaphor, the
maternal-feminine cannot be fully foreclosed.
Rereading Freud
While Freud set out to uncover the nature of sexuality
by way of language, Irigaray criticizes his approach in the
first essay in Speculum. "La Tache aveugle d'un vieux reve
de symétrie." She draws attention to what she considers the

36
"blind spot" in his theoretical "dream of symmetry": the
phallic specular relation operating within his theory.
Irigaray demonstrates Freud's admission that his
understanding of sexuality derives from "une prescription du
psychique par 11anatomique selon 1'ordre de la mimesis," a
metaphorical one-to-one relation between sexual organisms
(sperm/ovum) and sexual beings (male/female) (SP 15; SPE
12). Based on unitary logic, Freud's version of mimesis
refers to the model-copy variety that posits "a truthful
relation between world and word, model and copy, nature and
image, or, in semiotic terms, referent and sign" (Diamond
58). Within such a paradigm, sameness masks potential
difference.
Instead of uncovering the nature of sexuality, the
reiterated results of his case studies (women most often
being his objects of inquiry, Irigaray ironically notes)
actually
donne á voir ce qui jusqu'alors pouvait
functionner tout en restant implicite, occulté,
méconnu: 1'indifférence sexuelle dont se soutient
la vérité de toute science, la logique de tout
discours. (CS 67; TS 67)
His interpretations repeat the age-old metaphysical scenario
begun with Plato and offer a version of sexuality based on
phallic parameters. For instance, when it came to theorizing
woman, he could only conceive of her as a man minus the
penis, castrated, a deformed copy of himself, "thereby
demonstrating the truth of his own centrality" (Diamond 59).
Lacking a penis, she is deprived of her subjectivity, as

37
well as the possibility of self-representation. If that were
not enough, Freud's concept of penis envy pushed her state
of lack even further, to lock her into a position of futile
desire. She serves as a tool, a mirror, propping up his
desire, facilitating his subjectivity. Instrumental in this
specular relation but without subjectivity, she, or rather
her envy, fleshes out his mirror reflection, "making her
look like a male looking at himself" (Diamond 63). "Son lot
serait celui du 'manquée', de 'l'atrophie' (du sexe), et de
'11envie du pénis' comme seul sexe reconnu valeureux" (CS
23; TS 23). Freud speaks of the child's phallic stage, but
no vulvar, vaginal, or uterine stage figures in his schema.
Each of these moves illustrates the foreclosure in Western
thought of the possibility of representing feminine
difference and female desire. Covering over woman's sexual
specificity enables Freud to posit the psychosexual standard
as male. As Irigaray sees it, Freudian theories of subject
formation require the negation, repression, and repudiation
of the vaginal, the uterine, and the vulvar.
Although she does credit him with uncovering a certain
logic of presence, he was unable to analyze the conditions
of the production of his own discourse on sexual difference:
Autrement dit, les questions que la pratique et la
théorie de Freud posent á la scene de la
représentation ne vont pas jusqu'á celle de la
détermination sexuée de cette scene. (CS 71; T£
71)
His "blind spot" vis-á-vis these conditions enabled him to
demonstrate the "truth" of his own model of psychological

38
behavior. Freud is not alone in his lack of foresight
Irigaray emphasizes. Failure to question the sexual
determination of the scene of representation is a phenomenon
endemic to a broader metaphysical trend in Western thought.
Irigaray, mimicking Freud quoting Napoleon, asserts that
"l'anatomie, c'est le destin" (CS 70; TS 70). Her brilliant
re-citation enables her both to engage Freud's text and to
put into question the veracity of his affirmation in support
his own theory:
autre 'symptome' de 1'appartenance du discours de
Freud á une tradition non analysée: le mode de
recours á 1'anatomique comme critére irréfutable
de vérité. (CS 69; TS 70-71)
Through Irigaray's "psychoanalysis" of Freud, she
demonstrates how his theory of sexual difference depends on
a model of anatomical a priori sameness clearly reflected in
his "mode d'emploi" of symmetry, analogy, comparison, and
binary oppositions--figures of speech which efface
difference and relations of contiguity. Psychoanalytically
speaking, these relations of closeness represent the
unstable divide between the bodies of mother and infant
that, as Butler says, "reemerge in language as the metonymic
proximity of signs" and risk to decenter phallogocentric
metaphorical unity (BTM 46).
When viewed in light of the castration complex, Freud's
scenario initiates fear and repulsion of the feminine in
both men and women.
La filie se détourne de sa mére, la ~hait' parce
qu'elle s'aperpoit que celle-ci n'a pas le sexe
valeureux qu'elle lui supposait; ce rejet de la

39
mere s'accompagne de celui de toute femme, elle-
meme comprise. (CS 68; TS 69)
Citing Freud's own words, Irigaray reiterates the "law" that
dictates that woman's lack of a penis determines man's
"'dépréciation de la femme . . . horreur de ces créatures
mutilées ou mépris triomphant á leur égard'" or at the very
least, a disparaging attitude toward women (CS 69; TS 69).
The little girl, as Freud says, "'se détourne de sa mere,'
'qu'elle dévalorise toutes les femmes' á l'égal d'elle-méme
parce que dépourvues de pénis" (CS 69; TS 69). But Irigaray
ironically implies here that the problem lies not in the
fact that women are penis-less but in the cultural taboo of
identity with the mother, apparent in women's psychological
rejection of her mother, herself, and other women. Marking
the feminine body as an illegitimate version of the
masculine body, a flawed copy, creates a looming, prohibited
feminine, a threat to manhood that reinforces the imperative
of subjecting oneself to cultural law.
As a result, historically, Western thought provides an
account of the social order that forbids encounter with the
maternal-feminine and forecloses "woman" as a viable
subject. Irigaray's rereading of Freud argues that woman is
only the fetish of representation, deprived of
representation as Subject: "la femme, dans cet imaginaire
sexuel, n'est que support . . . á la mise en acte des
fantasmes de l'homme" (CS 25; TS 25). Ontologically, she
simply has no status within this "indifferent" economy.

40
Going back through sexual difference, "the staging" of
matter is the first step in undermining the stability of
what we know as sexual difference (BTM 52).
Cet ailleurs de la jouissance de la femme ne se
retrouve qu'au prix d'une retraversée du miroir
qui sous-tend toute spéculation. Ne se situant
simplement ni dans un procés de réflexion ou de
mimétisme . . . mais renvoyant toutes ces
catégories et coupures aux nécessités de l'auto-
représentation du désir phallique dans le
discours. (CS 75; TS 77)
Resubjecting herself to mimesis and matter in order to
disrupt the specular foreclosure of the feminine in her
famous essay "Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un," Irigaray mimes
Freud's use of metaphor by juxtaposing a catachrestic plural
morphological figure to that of phallic oneness.13 Defined
in the Petit Robert, a catachresis is a figure of rhetoric
that "consiste á détourner un mot de son sens propre." It is
a metaphor that denotes the inappropriate use of a proper
term to describe what cannot be properly named within a
symbolic system. "Détourner" also suggests "soustraire á son
profit, voler," and links up with Cixous's description of
écriture féminine:
Voler, c'est le geste de la femme, voler dans la
langue, la faire voler. Du vol, nous avons toutes
appris 1'art aux maintes techniques, depuis des
siécles, que nous n'avons accés á 1'avoir qu'en
volant; que nous avons vécu dans un vol, de voler,
trouvant au désir des passages étroits, dérobés,
traversants. Ce n'est pas un hasard si 'voler' se
joue entre deux vols, jouissant de l'un et de
1'autre et déroutant les agents du sens. Ce n'est
pas un hasard: la femme tient de l'oiseau et du
voleur comme le voleur tient de la femme et de
l'oiseau: illes passent, illes filent, illes
jouissent de brouiller 1'ordre de l'espace, de le
désorienter, de changer de place les meubles, les
choses, les valeurs, de faire des casses, de vider

41
les structures, de chambouler le propre" ("Rire"
49) .
Irigaray fleshes out a specifically sexed feminine metaphor,
of two lips, turning the site of her exclusion--sexed
morphology--into an affirmation. She proposes this vulvar
counterpart by deliberately stepping into the materially-
laden role historically associated with women. She does so
not with pretensions of declaring the "truth," but to show
instablity in the system that classifies "sex." Irigaray's
"vulvomorphic" logic reveals the performative function of
language to produce, from a linguistic conceptualization,
the "reality" that it names. As Jane Gallop points out,
"phallomorphic logic is not based in anatomy but, on the
contrary, reconstructs anatomy in its own image" (78). It is
in this light that we can understand Irigaray's metaphor,
not as a faithful representation of nature, but as a poesis
as Gallop says, a process of creating woman's sex
transgressive of the phallomorphic law operating on an
unconscious level and therefore divorced from its historical
beginnings. Excessive and non-normative, her lips trope is
"not predestined by anatomy but is already a symbolic
interpretation of that anatomy" (Gallop 78). Through
imitation, it offers a reflection on the mimetic structure
that objectifies the other through the visual. Human bodies,
down to their anatomical aspects, vary, but they are often
conceptualized as being of one type, usually male. Moira
Gatens points out in Imaginary Bodies that portrayals of
whole female bodies are often absent in anatomy textbooks.

42
They include only sketches of what is lacking, the female
reproductive system for example, in the prototype. Outside
the mode of expression of philosophy proper, Irigaray's lips
function catachrestically. Neither vaginal nor clitoral,
they form an unsanctioned, improper symbolic figure without
a "nom 'propre'." Irigaray reproduces an image of female
sexuality counter to the ideal morphological standard--and
also parodies, self-consciously, the exclusions inherent in
the formation of phallic imagery.
There is no "propre" for the feminine deprived of
subjectivity Irigaray argues. For now, she can only be
glimpsed as the disturbance within it. The only tactic
available to her is the embezzlement and reappropriation of
roles, images, and stereotypes assigned to her. She steals
the techniques of phallogocentric logic and uses them
against it to uncover its sexed nature. At the same time,
her irreverent operation, her "vol," flies "elsewhere," and
keeps from being reduced to singularity and leads to
recognition of the repressed difference already within
phallogocentric logic. The operation of mimicry is not
reabsorbed into the repetitive function of sameness: it
points to meaning "outside" the system by miming, by
exposing what the linguistic signifier "n'articule pas dans
l'énoncé: ses silences" (CS 73, TS 75). The goal of mimicry
is to enact a self-same repetition but through a poesis that
repeats it differently. True to the art of the mime,
Irigaray makes visible what is invisible through the medium

43
of the body. Excessively charged with materiality, her image
exposes a vacant, constructed character inherent in
discourses on sexuality that reveals how bodies never quite
conform to the norms into which they are interpellated. Her
construction of a feminine metaphor is not essentialist for,
as Elizabeth Berg says, she "is obliged to advance some
image of woman if only to hold open this blank space." The
images she proposes "of fluids, caves, etc.--are empty ones"
subject to infinite deferral (17).
Playing with mimesis in such a way means to "tenter de
retrouver le lieu de son exploitation par le discours"
without allowing oneself to be reduced to exploitation and
silence (CS 74; TS 76). Irigaray's lips metaphor slips out
and flies free, if only for an instant, from symbolic
constraints.14 Indeed, her figure is not meant to determine
a fixed concept of female sexuality. Rather, it is a
symbolic representation that exceeds dualities. Constantly
moving back and forth between the lips and multiple points
of contact, this feminine pleasure "d'au moins deux lévres"
exceeds the law of sameness (CS 73; TS 26). Its multiplicity
troubles the phallogocentric logic of one-to-one
equivalence. If her jouissance is so plural, it cannot be
easily controlled, reduced, and assimilated into oneness.
Butler understands Irigaray's multiple lips as a repetition
of the violation of that reduces woman to materiality, but
she claims that these
repetitions of hegemonic forms of power . . . fail
to repeat loyally and, in that failure, open

44
possibilities for resignifying the terms of
violation against their violating aims. (BTM 124)
Irigaray's excessively material configuration of the anatomy
disrupts the image of woman as man's negative. Uncovering
the plurality of possible representations within the phallic
scene of representation risks to jam the workings of the
machinery of sameness. Once introduced into the system, the
catachrestic feminine figure reveals the logic of
phallocentrism1s impotence to determine the meaning of its
terms. Through this nontraditional metaphor, she points
toward the possibility of a third course, gesturing toward
an "Other of the Other" covered over by phallic logic. As
Berg notes, she does so "by fixing her gaze on the support
itself: focusing resolutely on the blank spaces of masculine
representation, and revealing their disruptive power" (17).
Irigaray describes her process of "mimétisme" as
"hysterical miming," as the woman's attempt to save her
sexuality from complete repression. Hysterical laughter is
always at least double. Whereas laughter should signify joy,
hysterical laughter is paradoxical and improper. Hollow, it
resounds like an echo in an empty house. Listening closely,
one can hear the silences within it. Nevertheless, at the
same time this tactic is liberating. By exposing the threat
of psychological and physical harm inherent in subject
formation based on negative disavowal, it reveals the
boundaries of the subject to be more shifting than imagined.
In fact, for Irigaray the hysterical figure is a
catachrestic one: she is inside the symbolic realm but

45
exceeds its figuration of her. The illusion that the
boundaries of subjects are fixed could not be sustained
without the social prohibition of feminine specificity. For
both Irigaray and Chawaf, this taboo produces a cultural
aversion toward the feminine. By appropriating hysteria,
which Freud claims is proper to woman, such excessive
performances of feminine sexuality symbolically embrace the
risk that threatens a subject's boundaries.
Some of Irigaray's critics argue that her mimicry
relegates woman to a place where she is permanently deprived
of a voice. However, true to the flowing, ephemeral art of
mime, the blank space exposed through Irigaray's mimicry
is, clearly, no place between 'his' language and
'hers,' but only a disruptive movement which
unsettles the topographical claim ... a taking
of his place, not to assume it, but to show that
it is occupiable, to raise the question of the
cost and movement of that assumption. (BTM 36)
Philosophical discourse will continue to deprive women of
the value of their sex, Irigaray claims, as long as "on ne
sache pas pourquoi, par qui, et que cela soit porté au
compte de la 'Nature'" (CS 70; TS 71). Exposing the threat
of the loss of the self's integrity through hysterical
mimicry, she explores what Butler calls the "zones of
inhabitability" which a subject fantasizes to be threatening
its own integrity (BTM 243). Valorising the masculine over
the feminine serves to shore up the dominance of the
phallogo-centric order, to empower one group at the expense
of the other.

46
Irigaray's tactical mimicry shakes up the foundations
of marginalization on which the edifice of patriarchy is
built by exposing the metaphorical structure inherent in the
production of form and matter. It challenges the systematic
exclusion of what is outside conventional representational
systems--different relations of and within signification--
and attempts to open up a passageway to what has been
repressed: the flesh, the material, the maternal-feminine.
Exposing such referential instability is enabling for
feminist discourse. It implies that neither the
phallogocentric thinking nor the grammar supporting and
conditioning it are closed systems; they contain the
elements for their own undoing. The feminine exclusion that
she isolates is neither a permanent nor immutable state, for
it is produced performatively through an unstable system of
referentiality. Psychoanalytically speaking, recognizing the
repressed origin could unblock the erasure of the maternal-
feminine and allow new relations between the self and the
other to begin. A system of sexual difference which
recognizes woman’s sexual specificity, instead of
assimilating her into masculine sameness, would be the means
for putting into question the domination of masculine over
feminine, as well as self-destructive rivalry among women.
Conceptualizing sexual difference in a different economy of
language would be a first step towards change in the human
condition, both female and male.

47
For Irigaray, such a return of the maternal-feminine
figures only in the conditional mode for it has yet to come
into being. Provisional tactics, such as Irigaray's mimicry,
are for her the first step towards not only female
subjectivity, but subjectivity for all bodies that do not
comply with the heterosexual masculine norm. Using
Irigaray's rereading of Plato as a point of departure,
Butler examines the conditions of the production of the
concept of matter. She traces, and problematizes, the ways
in which sexual difference functions in philosophical
discourse.
Gender Performativitv
Since the inception of écriture féminine in the 1970s,
critics have dismissed the symbolic-altering potential of
this practice as utopian. However, in light of Judith
Butler's theory of the performativity of gender and its link
to bodily materiality, we can now envision the possibility
of "a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon,"
possible through the repetition of subversive mimetic acts
such as mimicry (23) .15 She engages with the western
philosophical tradition in an Irigarayian manner. That is to
say that she explores the conditions of the production of
discourse in order to understand how sexed bodies
materialize. For Butler as for Irigaray, the matter of
bodies encompasses the material, the discursive, and the
ethical: how bodies take form or appear and how they

48
signify, as well as "which bodies come to matter and why"
(BTM xii).
Since Simone de Beauvoir's classic formulation in Le
Deuxieme Sexe. "on ne nait pas femme, on le devient,"
feminist theory has relied on dichotomous thinking with the
sex/gender binary at its base (477). To account for
differences among women yet retaining their common bond, sex
was posited as the natural, biological given and gender as a
social supplement to sex, artificially added through
interaction with the world. Debates have since revolved
around two camps of thought: one that argues the primacy of
sex over gender, and the other, gender over sex. The theory
of social constructionism tends to privilege gender over sex
on the grounds that sex is an appeal to the "natural." Yet
Butler identifies a problem with an espousal of this theory
as it is currently formulated.
Paradoxically, in social constructionism's seeming
rejection of the notion of sex as a foundation, it
reiterates that very idea: sex is seen as the solid ground
to which the social is added. As Irigaray makes clear in "La
Tache aveugle d'un vieux reve de symétrie," Beauvoir's
formulation of gender derives from Freud's discourse on
femininity (SP 19; SPE 21). In terms similar to those of
Beauvoir he states, "psycho-analysis does not try to
describe what a woman is . . . but sets about inquiring how
she comes into being" ("Femininity" 116). Beauvoir's re¬
citation of Freud is significant, for Irigaray suggests that

49
feminist thinking uses his criteria uncritically: the
sex/gender dichotomy reiterates phallo-logic. In other
words, social construction reifies the notion of sex as the
solid ground of identity. Articulating a theory of the
feminine on the grounds of a body supposedly outside culture
is problematic, especially as Irigaray argues, when it is a
notion of the body articulated within a misogynistic
tradition, one that constitutes a structural position of
exclusion.
Constructivism suggests that a social force exists
which operates outside the scene of construction as an a
priori, investing the social with "a culture or agency . . .
which acts upon nature" (BTM 6). This way of thinking
implies that social agency remains outside human action.
Problematically casting aside bodily experience, the body
appears only as an effect of language, and the concept of
sex as a phantasy. Seeking to overcome the impasse vis-a-vis
the social problems of marginalization and abjection, Butler
shifts the focus of feminist philosophy from essentialism
versus constructivism to
the more complex questions of how "deep-seated" or
constitutive constraints can be posed in terms of
symbolic limits in their intractability and
contestability. (94)
The matter of "sex," the site of bodily oppression, is not
static. Butler points out that in Greek ontology matter was
a creative principle and had the power to originate. Yet
this idea is lost in Cartesian philosophy. Focusing on the
question of how sexual material difference functions with

50
respect to discursive practices, Butler's theory of gender
performativity aims to displace the stability of the
sex/gender dichotomy. To rethink the form/matter split in a
modern political context by interrogating the degree to
which the concept of form is historically produced, Butler
draws from Irigaray's reading of Plato and Foucault's
historical analysis of the interconnections of form and
matter.16 The following discussion traces Butler's
examination of the categories of sex and gender through an
optic of linguistic speech acts, structuralist and post¬
structuralist philosophy, and psychoanalytic thinking.
One of the ways bodies materialize is through
discourse, Butler asserts, namely through performative
citational practices. Her theory of gender performativity
reconfigures J.L. Austin's concept of performative speech
acts elaborated in How To Do Things With Words. As opposed
to constative or descriptive statements, performatives are
neither "true" nor "false." Instead this class of statements
describes discursive moments when saying is doing, or, to
paraphrase Austin, when saying can make it so. Austin
outlines several requirements for these speech acts: his
rules illustrate how highly regulated speech acts must be
reiterated seriously in order to operate correctly.17
Performatives may either fail or succeed, depending on both
the speaker's and the receiver's compliance with
convention.18 A performative even masquerades as a statement
of fact, Austin declares, "when it assumes its most explicit

51
form," which is to say, as a type of authoritative speech
(4) ,19 All philosophical constatives, according to Butler,
operate as performatives. Although they are neither "true"
nor "false," they masquerade as descriptions of "reality"
through the reiterated invocation of authority. This
masquerade involves the illusion that a statement's meaning
remains singular and constant through space and over time.
As Irigaray would say, it gives rise to the deception that
there is no meta-metaphor.
Austin's seminal work on performatives has led to
important critical insights into "how contingent and
radically heterogeneous--how contestable" the relationship
is between a subject and an utterance (Parker & Sedgwick
14). This contingency applies to the interlocutor, the
audience, and the locution of the performative act. Austin's
claim that "actions can only be performed by persons, and
obviously in our cases the utterer must be the performer,"
shows how he privileged the subject's agency over other
factors that constrain individuals, such as relations of
power (60). Butler's gender performativity, on the other
hand, questions an individual's ability to bring about the
intended action. Understanding the performance of gender as
a simple action effected through a subject's choice
oversimplifies this process. As Butler explains, a subject
cannot choose to don a gender as she chooses to put on
either a dress or pants at the start of the day. Instead of
subscribing to the performativity of gender centered around

52
the subject "as the act by which a subject brings into being
what she/he names," she emphasizes the role of discourse in
producing "the phenomena that it regulates and constrains"
(BTM 2). The function of discourse in this process provides
the link between the performativity of gender and the
materiality of sex, where materiality signifies how bodies
take form or appear and how they signify.
Like Irigaray, Butler argues that the materiality of
"sex" is not unproblematically a bodily given,- it is
conditioned by the form/matter dichotomy and by the
psychical body image. "Sex" does not simply receive cultural
gender constructions, but serves as an Ideal produced
through the reiteration of cultural norms. This reiteration
is a type of performativity that dictates how bodies
materialize.
Materialization is a complex discursive process over
time, Butler contends, an effect of power in the Foucauldian
sense. Just as Irigaray demonstrated that matter is not
passive but has been deceivingly conceptualized as such,
Foucault shows how form is historically produced, "from one
moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every
relation from one point to another ... it comes from
everywhere" (HS 93). In an abstract way, materialization
emerges through "ceaseless struggles and confrontations" at
the nexus of various cultural and discursive practices (93) .
When conceived as outside discourse and power, form can be
used as a tool of (oppressive) power. Discursive acts,

53
Butler shows, are part of the process of diffuse power that
produces boundaries of texts and bodies.20 Through the
operation of "citation" which reinstalls normative
boundaries, the body's boundaries appear completely stable
instead of being repeatedly put into question. She uses
citation in Derrida's sense of citationality, "in which the
naming in discourse of an 'object' by a particular subject
is a 'citation' of an already existing discursive norm"
(Cotter 228). The invocation of normative gender constraints
is a ritualized procedure that not only "sets a limit to
performativity" but also "impels and sustains
performativity" (BTM 95) .
Butler chooses a juridical metaphor in elaborating her
argument. To illustrate the role of regulation and citation
within the symbolic order, she compares the process of
identity formation to the formation of laws within the
American legal institution. Although a judge appears to be
invested with the power to create law, Butler reminds us
that the sanction does not rest in his person as such.
Rather, he can "originate" law only by subscribing to and
citing statute. Bound to the legal conventions preceding
him, any law he appears to initiate is actually a
reconstitution of prior law. As a certain law is cited over
and over in time and across space, it accrues authority.
Through an "echo chain of their own reinvocation," laws are
invested with a binding power which the judge, as appointed
guardian of the legal process, serves to perpetuate.

Discrete acts of gender performance operate similarly
through this echo chain.
54
What compels gender performativity? Instead of viewing
the formation of the sexed subject as largely developmental
in Freudian or Lacanian schemas, Butler suggests that
subject formation can be understood as an effect of power
that both generates and constrains "sex and a sexed position
within language" (95). There is no subject prior to the
reiterated performance of gender norms, she contends.
Rather, "an echo-chain of their own reinvocation" as subject
enables subjects to come into being (107). Following
Althusser, she argues that one can accede to the status of
subject only through a prior interpellation into this
position: "I can only say 'I' to the extent that I have
first been addressed, and that address has mobilized my
place in speech" (225). This interpellation begins at birth
when the doctor, invested with the authority to do so,
pronounces an infant's sex through the performative "It's a
girl!" Reiterated and reinforced through one's life, the
process of sexing "is at once the setting of a boundary, and
also the repeated inculcation of a norm" (8). Subjects do
not emerge prior to their recognition; instead, it is the
recognition as a viable subject that materializes the
subject.
From this perspective, Irigaray's insistence on mimicry
as a strategy for agency becomes more clear. Exposing how
woman's sexual specificity has been repressed in western

55
philosophy and psychoanalysis through mimicry reveals the
prior existence of the feminine, albeit an obscured one. At
present, she claims, woman's sexual difference can only be
glimpsed with recourse to the language strategy of mimicry.
In light of Butler's theory of dynamic identity
formation, "sex" can be seen as an "ideal construct," as
Irigaray's lips-figure illustrates, a "regulatory ideal"
dictated by symbolic law which, over time and through a
network of regulated discursive practices, has the power to
"produce--demarcate, circulate, differentiate--the bodies it
controls" (1). Although the force of this ideal appears to
exist prior to philosophical and psychoanalytic discourses
on sexuality, she maintains that these discourses actually
operate performatively, setting limits in advance on sexual
identification and simultaneously reproducing these limits
as normative in order to shore up the authority of their own
claims. Performative theory demonstrates, according to
Franpois Lyotard, that the
limits the institution imposes on potential
language 'moves' are never established once and
for all (even if they have been formally defined).
Rather, the limits are themselves the stakes and
provisional results of language strategies, within
the institution and without. (17)
From Butler's perspective, relations of discourse and power
are more fluid than prior theories have acknowledged.
Through her rereading of Freud's and Lacan's language
'moves,' Butler recasts the symbolic "as a series of
normativizing injunctions that secure the borders of sex
through the threat of psychosis, abjection, psychic

56
unlivability" (15). In Freud's paradigm, subject formation
takes place through identification and repudiation. A boy
must identify with his father (his same) and renounce or
reject the mother (his other) "under and through the force
of prohibition and taboo" (95). "Demands, taboos, sanctions,
injunctions, prohibitions, possible idealizations, and
threats" serve to keep unruly bodies in line (106). As
Irigaray points out in Speculum de 1'autre femme. Freud's
discourse on sexuality operates performatively. It does not
describe an actual condition but produces a certain version
of reality, a normative phantasm of "sex," based on
masculine parameters, that require the rejection of the
maternal-feminine. As Irigaray argues, such discourses on
sexuality produce the maternal-feminine as an abject zone
outside the realm of the subject, a realm of inhabitability,
that, according to Butler,
will constitute the defining limit of the
subject's domain; it will constitute that site of
dreaded identification against which--and by
virtue of which--the domain of the subject will
circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to
life. (BTM 3)
One shores up one's position as subject through speech acts
that produce an abject outside. Stating "I would rather die
than be or do that!" is an example of the disavowal inherent
in this process (243). Among the effects the accumulation of
such renunciation produces is exclusion, disenfranchisement,
and physical harm.
The materialization of "sex" over time, through the
reiteration of regulatory norms and shaming interpellation

57
serves to assure the ruling authority's boundaries. What
would happen, Butler inquires, if a term meant to
marginalize were reiterated differently--detached from its
negating intent? As Austin reminds us, performative
reiteration invokes convention and this process must always
be a repetition of the same in order to assure the success
of the performative. "This law can only remain a law to the
extent that it compels the differentiated citations and
approximations called 'feminine' and 'masculine,'" Butler
demonstrates (15). If stable identity requires reiteration
over time, this reveals that the boundaries of signification
must constantly be reinstated and thus signals a possible
instability built into the system: the law "perpetually
reinstitutes the possibility of its own failure" (108). As a
result, Butler argues, "materialization is never quite
complete" and "bodies never quite comply with the norms by
which their materialization is impelled" (2). What appears
outside the normative realm in this "zone of inhabitability"
nevertheless figures inside it, she contends. It occupies
the place against which what is inside defines itself.
Because this outside is integral to the system, it hovers as
a threat to the inside's autonomy. In order to maintain its
self-perpetuation as the domain that matters, the system
must repress what it has pushed to the margins.
Each performative utterance is subject to such
"infelicity," according to Austin, a risk of failure that
cannot be controlled by a subject's intent. A strategy of

58
noncompliance with the authority of the speaker can perhaps
destabilizing norms. As Parker and Sedgwick note, a
threatening performative statement of
"I dare you" followed by a subversive "witnesses"
chorus of "Don't do it on our account" would
radically alter the social, the political, the
interlocutory (I-you-they) space of encounter.
(Performativitv and Performance 9)
From an ethical standpoint, performativity
makes the "players" assume responsibility not only
for the statements they propose, but also for the
rules to which they submit those statements in
order to render them acceptable. (Lyotard 62)
The uncertainty within this system provides possibilities
for the "rematerialization" of abject bodies, bodies that do
not matter, in particular those who deviate from the
standard because of sex, sexual orientation, race, and/or
nationality. What effects, then, would certain subversive
acts, like Chawaf's écriture féminine, which flaunt the
artificial nature of these constructs, produce?
Although there is no way to step neatly outside the
symbolic, destabilizing textual strategies seek to bring to
consciousness the operations of the streams of power
necessary for supporting and sustaining symbolic "law". For
Butler, "law" remains a citation. Her view on power reveals
that symbolic "law" is not an a priori Law, but is instead
self-endorsing, creating boundaries that serve to fortify
itself as Law. Strategies like mimicry put into question the
indisputable status of the "law" by revealing the
possibilities for citing it differently. Reiterations within
the "echo-chain" are always subject to failure, enabling

59
practices such as mimicry. Through hyperbolic over¬
performances, such catachrestic speech acts produce
"unhappy" deviations (as Austin called them) in the
citational chain--"slippage between discursive command and
its appropriated effect" with the aim of forcing the
signifier "woman" to exceed its intended meaning (BTM 122).
An excessive conformity to symbolic commands actually
exposes the hyperbolic status of convention. It shows that
identity terms themselves are always catachrestic,
uncontrollable metaphorical positionings without absolute
referents. Paradoxically, exaggerated complicity with
phallogocentric norms reveals the (re)production of power
through philosophical concepts, language, and grammar.
Pointing overtly to the gaps and fissures in signification,
nonsanctioned speech acts hold promise for intervening in
the normative framework of the symbolic order.21 Undermining
performative acts actually disputes the divide between the
symbolic and imaginary realms, upon whose separation Lacan
insisted.
Although Butler provides the matrix for not reading
Irigaray as essentialist, she claims nonetheless that
Irigaray idealizes the feminine as the excluded "other" par
excellence--"as what must remain outside these oppositional
positions as their supporting condition" (BTM 52). Butler
points out that in Plato's discourse
There is no singular outside, for the Forms
require a number of exclusions; they are and
replicate themselves through what they exclude,
through not being the animal, not being the woman,

60
not being the slave, whose propriety is purchased
through property, national and racial boundary,
masculinistn, and compulsory heterosexuality. (BTM
52)
This criticism can be read as justifiable to a degree, in
that Irigaray fails to mention "the metonymic link between
women and these other Others" (BTM 49). However, Butler's
conclusion that Irigaray appropriates, and therefore
idealizes, the 'elsewhere' as the feminine can be contested
when considering how Irigaray rereads Plato--through a
strategy of mimicry. "Appropriating" the feminine is not
tantamount to "idealizing" the feminine. Irigaray mimes
Plato, making use of his familial metaphor, his exclusion of
the maternal - feminine. She does not necessarily define the
"elsewhere" of matter, but rather, her performative
rereadings suggest the inadequacy of any definition of
otherness. For example, in elaborating a morphological
figure of the lips, Irigaray does not expect the reader to
take her trope as a "real" depiction of female genitalia.
She intentionally omits the clitoral, the vaginal, and the
uterine to produce a counter response like "No! That's not
the way woman is." In this sense, a strong negative reaction
testifies to the success of the displacement. If matter is,
as Butler claims, "an ungrounded figure" and if
the feminine, strictly speaking, has no morphe, no
morphology, no contour, for it is that which
contributes to the contouring of things, but is
itself undifferentiated, without boundary (BTM
49) ,

61
then how is it that Irigaray posits "the notion that the
feminine monopolizes the sphere of the excluded" (BTM 48)?
But, as apparent in Irigaray's lips figure, her mime reveals
a paradigm of dominance/subordination at work and it serves
to expose a certain logic of exclusion operating in
philosophical discourse, without foreclosing the play of
difference.
As Gayatri Spivak argues, identity categories allow
identity-based political practices to proceed. Yet, treating
them as foundations beyond interrogation limits political
potential ("In a Word" 124-56). It should be recognized that
the totalizations of such categories are provisional and
tactical. Irigaray recognizes the complexity of differences
among women: "les femmes ne forment pas á strictement parler
une classe, et leur dispersion dans plusieurs rend leur
combat politique et complexe" (CS 31; TS 32). In the final
analysis, an interrogation of the terms of feminist debate
(the concepts of woman, sex, and gender) reveals the
discourse's own relation to power and authority and
therefore remains true to the democratizing principles of
feminist practice.
Conclusion
Exploring sexual metaphors in Western philosophy,
Irigaray and Butler reveal the exclusions inherent in the
production of "sex" in Western philosophy that challenge its
claims to Truth or Reality. The standard discourse produces
bodies which fall outside the realm of legitimacy, bodies

62
marginalized in terms of sex, sexual orientation, race,
ethnicity, and class--or any combination of the latter.
Irigaray and Butler seek new ways of conceptualizing
exclusive categories like "sex." In the twentieth century,
whereas the disciplines of anthropology and psychoanalysis
have provided useful insights for rethinking "sex" for
feminist purposes, Western philosophy is often seen as a
discourse that serves only to devalorize "woman." Irigaray
and Butler seek to show the ways in which this discourse can
be used to advance political democratization as well.
Although Chawaf's écriture feminine is a textual and
also a political practice rooted in this philosophical
tradition, her procedure has yet to be studied within the
context of the tradition's important contributions to
contemporary feminist practice, brought to light by Irigaray
and Butler. Chawaf's version of écriture féminine, that is
her mimetic strategy, employs gender categories
metaphorically. Few critics have acknowledged this, and the
implications of her use of metaphor have not yet been
sufficiently elaborated.
Irigaray's and Butler's rethinking of matter and gender
performance is useful for refuting claims that Chawaf's
écriture féminine is an outmoded, essentialist, and passive
attempt at defining "woman." In fact, an argument could be
made that écriture féminine has been rejected as a viable
"feminist" practice because it puts the idealized category

63
of "woman" into question, and thereby threatens a feminism
that depends on the solid ground of identity.
This chapter has focused on how Irigaray and Butler
offer a dynamic view of matter, not seen unproblematically
as a bodily given, but as standardized and regulated through
discourse, through the repeated invocation of norms.
Conceptualized in this way, the ethical implications of
matter are revealed: those bodies in noncompliance with
norms are socially marked as insignificant--as not
mattering--as nonexistent in terms of social and political
rights. They shift the focus of feminist inquiry from the
interrogative mode (asking, "what is woman?") toward the
performative, "toward the imaginative enactment of sexual
redefinitions, reborderizations, and rearticulations" (Fuss
7). In my opinion, such imagining "otherwise" is the goal of
Chawaf's practice. The body, Butler argues, is
a materiality that bears meaning, if nothing else,
and the manner of this bearing is fundamentally
dramatic . . . the body is not only merely matter
but a continual and incessant materializing of
possiblities. One is not simply a body, but, in
some very key sense, one does one's body. (BTM
272)
To state that "one does one's body" is not to deny biology.
Rather, Butler's theory of performativity reveals how
discourse shapes consciousness of material bodies, masks
difference, and even impels bodies to comply to norms that
never quite fit. Recasting the female body as Irigaray does
with her lips figure demonstrates how "doing" one's body is
a complex, dynamic, theatrical process, a performance that

64
is never completely finished. It broadens the horizon of
possibilities for refiguring the concept of "woman." From
this perspective, Chawaf's écriture féminine can be seen as
an active procedure, a complex process of reworking
conceptualizations of bodies.
Examining Chawaf's writing through the theoretical
optic provided by Irigaray and Butler offers a new way of
understanding her controversial insistence on relations
between bodily materiality and textuality, and in
particular, how and to what ends she exploits conventional
portrayals of woman.
Notes
1 The term (in)difference signifies the veiled non¬
differentiation between the sexes, hence Irigaray's
inscription of difference carries the traces of its
indifference.
2 For Irigaray, sexual difference is at the heart of
all problems of marginalization, be they gender, class,
race, or homosexuality. In taking such a stance, Irigaray
does, nevertheless, recognize differences within and among
these groups. Speaking of women, she says, "les femmes ne
foment pas á strictement parler une classe, et leur
dispersion dans plusieurs rend leur combat politique et
complexe" (CS 31; TS 32).
3 Irigaray understands sexual specificity as both
difference between the anatomy of women and men, and the
difference as it is inscribed in the cultural imaginary and
its symbolic representations.
4 See Jacques Derrida, "La structure, le signe, et le
jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines," in L1Ecriture
et la différence. as well as De la arammatoloaie. Maraes de
la philosoohie. and Positions.
5Irigaray's works are widely read in English. Therefore
page references include both French and English versions.
The abbreviations CS, TS, SP, and SPE stand, respectively,
for the following: Ce sexe gui n'en est pas un (Paris:

65
Editions de Minuit, 1977); This Sex Which is Not One, trans.
Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell, 1985); Speculum de
1'autre femme (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974); Speculum of
the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell,
1985) .
6 Matter in Irigaray should be understood as both a
noun and a verb. It constitutes what is conceptualized as
physical reality, as well as how this reality means or is
significant.
7 See Ferdinand de Saussure and Tullio De Mauro, Cours
de linouisticrue aénérale (Paris: Payot, 1972).
8 See Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses: une
archeolooie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).
8 This verb is synonymous with "représenter," "monter,"
"interpréter," "simuler," "imiter," "incarner," "spéculer,"
"se servir de," "se moquer de," and "risquer de."
10 As Elin Diamond points out, "a nonmimetic language
means that a speaker can no longer lay claim to a stable
system of reference, can no longer rely on language to
mirror (express, represent) her entire thought" (59).
11 Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex
(New York: Routledge, 1993) is abbreviated as BTM throughout
this manuscript.
12 Butler uses these terms to distinguish between the
other of the same and the Other of the other. Yet she also
notes her own improper use of excessive feminine, for she
names an element that cannot be thematized within philosophy
(BTM. 38-39).
13 In Ce sexe crui n'en est pas un.
14 Gallop reminds the reader of the contextualization
and temporality of this movement: "as soon as the metaphor
becomes a proper noun, we no longer have creation, we have
paternity" (81).
15 See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) and
Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New
York: Routledge, 1993).
16 In Bodies That Matter, Butler problematizes and
draws inspiration from the thought of a broad range of
thinkers--among them Lacan, Freud, Zizek, Laclau, and

66
Mouffe.
17 "It is always necessary that the circumstances in
which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways,
appropriate" (8). "The words must be spoken 'seriously' so
as to be taken 'seriously'" (9).
18 For "happy," successful performatives: "there must
exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain
conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering
of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances
. . . appropriate for the invocation of the particular
procedure invoked"; "the procedure must be executed by all
participants both correctly and completely" and "where, as
often, the procedure is designed for use by persons having
certain thoughts or feelings ... a person . . . must have
those thoughts or feelings," they must harbor the intention
to conduct themselves in a certain way, and finally, must
follow through with that intention (14-15).
ls Butler cites the example of the divine creation of
the world. God creates light through saying, "Let there be
light!"
20 Drawing from the work of Derrida and Lacan, Butler
separates acts from their implications of presence through
the notion of the sign chain. She understands "acts" in a
broad sense, as linked to a prior chain of acts. The fact
that they must be repeated signals "a provisional failure of
memory" and shows a present act to be, in fact, a vulnerable
continuum of the past (BTM 244). This vulnerability enables
a reconfiguration of past and present.
21 It is important to note that the result of such
performances can never be fully determined from the outset.
As noted earlier, their signifying power extends beyond
intention. In addition, a degree of complicity with norms
and convention makes possible these radical acts. However,
Butler makes a case for exploring their possibilities
anyway, despite the uncertainty and incontrollability, since
"the incalculable effects of action are as much a part of
their subversive promise as those we plan in advance" (BTM
241) .

CHAPTER TWO
CONTRE LA FICTION:
PARATEXT AND PARODY IN RETABLE-LA REVERIE
Ce n'est pas étrange si
j'ai 1'impression d'aller
contre la fiction.
Chawaf, "Contre la fiction"
Pour aborder un texte, il
faudrait que celui-ci eüt un
bord.
Derrida, "Survivre"
Chantal Chawaf's first and arguably most important
novel,1 Retable-la reverie was published in 1974, the same
year as Irigaray's Speculum de 1'autre femme and Cixous'
famous essay "Le Rire de la méduse." Its debut marked the
beginning of an era of female writers in France who flooded
the literary scene with works attempting to bring
specifically female experiences into the aesthetic arena.
Like Colette's "feminine" writing, Chawaf and many of her
contemporaries celebrated the pleasures and pains of
motherhood. However, writers of "écriture féminine"2 more
explicitly envisioned their work as a means to protest the
moral, ideological, and aesthetic doxa of the epoch.
Retable recounts a woman's quest for identity--her own
and that of her mother, who was killed on her way to the
hospital to give birth. After learning of her mother's fate
from her adoptive father, she attempts to recreate her birth
67

68
mother through the act of writing. More a performance than
an account of events, La Reverie celebrates lovemaking, in
all its intricacy, between a man and a woman. The reader in
search of an elaborate plot might be disappointed by
Chawaf's first novel, for the pleasure offered by the text
comes in the form of rich images, elaborate metaphors, and
play at the level of lexis and syntax.
Despite Chawaf's unusual treatment of language, her
insistence on the biological, the maternal as privileged
experience, and "writing life" has been viewed as
problematic, from both avant-garde and feminist
perspectives. Considering Chawaf1s association with Psych et
Po and Des Femmes, one would expect a transgressive feminist
approach to body and text. Yet the representations of women
in her novels reiterate, and hence have been said to
perpetuate, old myths and archetypes. Within a feminist
context, the "formes de femme" and their relation to the
womb evoke a maternal plenitude that raises a red flag. Are
they exclusionary when it comes to those who cannot, have
not, or will not give birth? Can these forms and her focus
on identity through a mother figure be labeled essentialist,
in conflict with a nonexclusionary, ethical life-embracing
perspective, and grounds to label her simply an "uncritical
maternalist?"3 Or, from another angle, do they repeat a
mystification of the feminine, positing it as unknowable, as
some feminist critics claim of contemporary philosophical

practices?4 How might Chawaf's writing practice be
understood in a feminist context?
69
Such gender trouble is coupled with questions of
literary approach. Throughout the article "Contre la
fiction, 11 Chawaf criticizes realist methods of writing, and
cites Balzac and Flaubert in particular, for aiming to box
in the novelistic universe, to limit language (47, 55) .5 In
contrast, she claims to write "contre la fiction," to
produce an "écriture de la vie" that joins fiction with
life. To emphasize the extent to which Chawaf's writing
style is inseparable from her feminism of sexual difference,
Bosshard categorizes her project as a "réalisme 'po-
éthique'" ("De 11eutopie champétre" 75). As Bosshard's
description suggests, Chawaf's poetics cannot be understood
outside the context of her ethics of love. Nonetheless, a
reading of her practice as realist implies that Chawaf
employs both language and imagery of female body with the
intent to approximate a faithful representation of nature.
Indeed, in order to flesh out the narrative she relies on
techniques and stereotypical portrayals of "woman" that seem
to support realist convention. What can be made of the
author's claims to be writing the matter, the body, the
feminine and the language of life? How can this be explained
in the context of the assertion that she writes "contre la
fiction?"
In order to explore the dynamic of representation and
life writing in Retable-la réverie. this chapter examines

70
instances of the novel1s paratext. As formulated by Gerard
Genette in Seuils. the paratext comprises those constitutive
supplements that designate the text as text and make
possible its presentation to the public, its circulation,
and its performance. Retable-la reverie's paratextual
elements provide a context for understanding what has been
called "the archetypal text of écriture féminine" (Haxell
"Woman as Lacemaker" 546) . My discussion aims to shed light
on Chawaf1s aesthetic and ethical engagement with language,
and more broadly, to problematize the reading of her work as
naively realist.
Paratext
In Seuils. Genette's entertaining, thought-provoking
study on the topic, he defines paratext as
ce par quoi un texte se fait livre et se propose
comme tel á ses lecteurs, et plus généralement au
public. [ . . . ] . . . il s'agit ici d'un seuil
ou--mot de Borges á propos d'une préface--d'un
'vestibule' qui offre á tout un chacun la
possibilité d'entrer, ou de rebrousser chemin.
'Zone indécise' entre le dedans et le dehors,
elle-méme sans limite rigoureuse, ni vers
l'intérieur (le texte) ni vers 1'extérieur (le
discours du monde sur le texte), lisiére, ou,
comme disait Philippe Lejeune, 'frange du texte
imprimé qui, en réalité, commande toute la
lecture' . . . zone de transition ... de
transaction. (7-8)
The paratext comprises the background objects that
constitute a literary work, that present it to the public
and render it materially present. They enable the marketing
and distribution of a text, and condition the public's
expectations. Guiding the exchange between the world and the

71
word, between real life and fiction, they form the mise-en-
scéne that conditions the narrative. A novel without
paratext is no novel at all. As Genette points out, a text's
material existence depends upon these threshold figures, yet
historically critics give weight to individual features such
as titles and biographical information, while the larger
context of their relation to reception remains peripheral.
Attention to these elements challenges the conception
of the book as a static entity, for how and whether it
exists depends on a variety of factors including historical
context, reader reception, authorial and editorial
influence, the market, and evolving technology in the
distribution of information, such as the internet. As open
frontier or membrane, the paratext remains in flux. Nowadays
more or less sanctioned by an author, the fringe elements of
the paratext actually command the whole reading. Situated in
a zone between the inside and outside of a text, they aid
the reader's transition from one realm to another, from the
"real" world to the textual world, forming a liminal space
where the binaries of real/fiction and public/private
converge. This zone of transition, Genette demonstrates,
operates above all as a zone of transaction.
An exploration of the space of transaction is key, in
Irigaray's view, as a means of access to sexual difference.
A reexamination of what counts as "real" can take place by
interrogating the liminal elements of the scenography of the

72
scene of representation--its constitutive aspects, notably
matter and the mirror:
1' architectonique de son théátre, son cadrage de
11espace-temps, son économie géométrique, son
ameublement, ses acteurs, leurs positions
respectives, leurs dialogues, voire leurs rapports
tragiques. (CS 72-3; TS 75)
She suggests a shift in focus from the action of center
stage to the economy within which it takes place: the
framing of the transaction and the exchange between text and
reader. In post-structuralist critiques using the theatrical
trope, the focus is displaced, as Timothy Murray succinctly
puts it, from "what is represented" to "how it is shown or
re-presented and how it is seen, read, or received"
(Mimesis. Masochism, and Mime 7). The critique of feminist
post-structuralist theory as ludic play with, and nihilistic
destruction of, the grounds of feminist practice must be
reconsidered. Murray rightly argues that such questioning of
a realist approach serves not to deny the real, but rather,
seeks a less myopic perspective on "reality." The shift in
focus from representation to construction involves
negotiation of meaning between interlocutor and audience,
authors and readers.
The relationship of literature with the public is of
primary concern to Chawaf. She views reading "writerly"
texts as a way for men and women to work through sexual
repression, the repression of the feminine. In Le corns et
le verbe she offers examples of the dynamic functioning of
language--its performative power. With the proliferation of

73
the written word, language has divided human beings, she
argues, and therefore it also holds the power to remake the
world. Refiguring the conceptual limits of the novel and the
feminine is part of her work towards reconnection, a kind of
ever-evolving unity that does not suppress difference.
The first-time reader, or those who simply glance
through Retable-la reverie, will notice how the
supplementary, auxiliary, and supporting elements of the
paratext play an important role in the novel. An aspect of
her innovative technique unmentioned in the criticism,
Chawaf's use of paratextual elements shows the latter to
operate as more than stable contextual parameters for the
novel,- they serve an active role in the world-building
activities of readers. Focusing on the 'becoming' of the
speaking subject and the text through an emphasis on the
paratextual, Chawaf interrogates the effects of encounters
between texts and audiences.
In choosing "para," Genette baptized these elements
appropriately, for etymologically the prefix signifies
"against" in both senses of the word: "counter" and
"beside." By its prefix, the term parody also belongs to
this same zone of the undecidable and is rooted in a similar
paradox. In her extensive analysis of twentieth-century
parodie forms, Hutcheon stresses that it is the nature of
parody to signify in contradictory ways.6 When Chawaf states
that her writing goes "contre la fiction," she describes her
écriture féminine as a literature of proximity and

74
opposition. Like other avant-garde literary practices,
Chawaf1s mimetic strategy simultaneously draws from and
positions itself against tradition, capitalizing on
intertextual references that enable the construction of
author and audience roles. Echoes of works throughout the
centuries from medieval romance to surrealism, from texts by
Plato, Montaigne, Rousseau, Proust, Breton, and Beckett,
resonate throughout Retable-la reverie.7
It is fitting, then, that the liminal, paratextual
spaces of Retable-la reverie be explored, especially as
sites open to negotiation, unstable, possible spaces of
cognitive shift and transformation. An examination of some
of Retable-la reverie's paratexts demonstrates how Chawaf
goes withagainst normative conceptions of genre and gender.
In particular, it offers insights into how the book's
construction interrogates ways of thinking about texts,
bodies, and the connections between the them.
Grossesse
In "De Retable á Roucreátre. " Chawaf describes the bond
between her "écriture du féminin" and her experience of
maternity:
J'ai commencé Retable en grossesse. Les
premieres lignes de mon écriture sont venues du
ventre, de ma matrice pleine, de ma matrice oú
vivait, oú respirait un enfant et j'ai entendu et
vu une coloration linguistique rosée qui se
déposait en mots matériels, en petites phrases
grosses et rondes sur les pages blanches. C'était
la profonde joie de communiquer avec la vie, avec
la langue de la vie. C'était 1'espace d'une
libération des perceptions de mon corps de femme
ou la vie dans un foetus melé á 1'écriture prenait
forme, formes de femme . . . Et puis les

75
retrouvailles s1élargissaient, se sont développées
et n'ont plus cessé de cheminer, de s'ouvrir et
Retable m'a conduite auprés des Editions des
Femmes, auprés d'une femme, Antoinette . . .
auprés d'un travail ou s'organisait politiquement
notre libération et notre différence, oú le
langage que je me sentáis moi-méme en train de
libérer s1inscrivait grace a ce groupe dans
l'efficacité d'une lutte. (87)
Key to understanding her subversion of gender and genre
norms, this paratextual document from a 1978 interview
describes the genesis of Retable-la reverie. Genette
classifies such accounts as public epitexts of the
"auctorial" type.
Chawaf describes her pregnancy and coming to writing as
indistinguishable events blending together body, text, and
psyche. In abundant prose, she recounts the wonder of her
pivotal maternal/literary experience, the floodgate of
communication it opened for her, both personally and
politically. Subtly but unmistakably, her account also stirs
with revolt. Underneath its playful tone rumbles a
contention not only with the social status quo of the era
but with the history of aesthetics and ethics.
After a seven-year stay in Syria, Chawaf returned to
her native France quaking in the aftermath of May '68, and
to the rupture of the second wave of feminism. Female
intellectuals engaged in the events of the revolt were full
of expectations for the future. Yet they emerged from this
period disheartened by a larger awareness of oppression.
What promised to be an era of social expansion after the
upheaval, proved to be, from a feminine perspective,

76
continued familiar exploitation. The sexual division of
labor--the delegation of women to grunge work--mirrored the
traditional role of women as providers of support services,
shutting them out of positions of power. From their point of
view, the expansion of democratic ideals carried with it an
unspoken imperative: 'for men only.'
Moved by what they saw as hypocrisy inherent in the
system in place, groups of French women took the initiative,
forming organizations on several fronts over the next few
years as a strategy of attack: the M.L.F., Psych et Po, Des
Femmes and the Centre d'Etudes Féminines. These coalitions
initiated gendered critiques, arguing that systematic
oppression was symptomatic of both capitalism and
patriarchy. Faced with barriers that did not allow them
access, they built a network of their own. Chawaf makes it
clear that thanks to the presence of "Des Femmes," a press
willing to support texts written in the service of
liberation and sexual difference, there was a means by which
she could publish her work and join with others in a like
cause.
Especially in criticism dating from the late 1970s and
early 1980s, Chawaf's lyrical novels singing the praises of
femininity were interpreted as an affirmation of the
positive aspects of womanhood. As a producer of such texts,
Chawaf figured among the ranks of those attempting to create
a feminine genealogy, a space of writing in which
specifically female experiences--relations between women and

77
their children, mothers, or partners--could be explored from
a woman's perspective. For those whose lived experience of
motherhood contradicted Simone de Beauvoir's condemnation of
it as alienating, Chawaf's celebration of motherhood came as
a welcome response.
Paradoxically, with the rise of the essentialist
critique in the early 1980s, écriture féminine received
increased critical attention. Unlike its early reception,
this avant-garde practice was viewed for the most part in a
negative light. Chawaf's references to the biological and
the maternal were interpreted as essentialist. Charges of
essentialism arose from the assumption that Chawaf
envisioned the body as privileged instrument of one's grasp
on the world. Linking her coming to writing with pregnancy,
the passage in "De Retable á Rougeatre" made her an easy
target. To a greater extent than her contemporaries, she was
blamed for having so explicitly "tied the practice of
feminine writing to the biological fact of motherhood"
(Suleiman, The (M)other Tongue 370).“
On the basis that the institution of motherhood often
operates in the service of patriarchy, Beauvoir viewed the
functions of menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation, in
general, as alienating forces. Exposing ways in which
material differences perpetuate sexual inequality, she
developed a framework for splitting gender from sex as a
means to differentiate the cultural from the biological. Her
distinction between these two poles has been a major

78
contribution to feminist thinking. However, Chawaf,
Irigaray, and other writers of écriture féminine take issue
with the possibility of the existence of a sexually neutral
subject. Since material differences between the sexes have
been used in the service of women's oppression, the
discourse reiterating these differences should be
interrogated on its own terms.
Chawaf, like Irigaray, travels the territory that
Beauvoir left unexplored. It is necessary to put into
question "ce vide de la mere," Chawaf argues, to
"l1explorer, le parcourir, l'habiter" in order to expose the
exclusion of the feminine ("De Retable á Roucreátre" 88) . Her
"écriture de la vie" can be read against the conception of
literary creation as a masculine metaphor, a biological act
in which the pen ejects ink onto the page and culminates
with "la petite mort," as a mimetic strategy of
displacement. In creation as a masculine act, the text is
complete when finished by the author who is central and
active, in control of meaning. Conversely, it implies that
the receiver (be it page or reader) accepts passively. Yet
such a conception effaces what is "other": the feminine as a
participant in the process, the material elements supporting
its foundation, and the reader as 'writer' or interpreter.
Miming the metaphor of writing as a masculine
engendering, Chawaf generates a specifically feminine
counter-trope as opposed to the phallic pen: the pregnant
womb. A figure for creating a space receptive to feminine

desire and sexual difference, her seemingly traditional
metaphor can be viewed as a seditious "vol" from
conventional origins.
79
To explore the womb as a space of writing is not to
make a clean break with the metaphor of writing as an act of
biological reproduction, but it is part of Chawaf's mimetic
strategy for critically engaging the logic of an economy of
domination on its own terms. Pregnant with possibilities and
performativity, this trope exemplifies the spirit of écriture
féminine which, as Cixous says, "est la possibilité méme du
changement" (Rire 42). Both Cixous and Irigaray insist that
at this time there is no fertile ground outside the dominant
discourse from which a feminine language could spring, "mais
un sol millénaire et aride á fendre" ("Rire" 39). Like
Irigaray's mimicry, the function of Chawaf's mimetic
strategy is not to replace the masculine-centered metaphor
with a female-centered one, but to reproduce a copy of the
self-same with a critical difference as a means of
displacing the singular model as the model par excellence.
As Irigaray says, the aim is to jam the theoretical
machinery of normative metaphors, "de suspendre sa
prétension á la production d'une vérité et d'un sens par
trop univoques" (CS 75; TS 78).
Lest one be mislead that the maternal is a metaphor by
taking Chawaf1s words as descriptive rather than performative
and then dismiss the author for such an obviously essentialist
position, her choice of terms puts us on the right track.9 In

80
the passage where she describes the genesis of her writing in
maternal terms, "se déposait" paradoxically signifies both
placement and displacement, simultaneous positing and
withdrawing, the operation of the mime. This double inscribing
gesture reveals the dual function of Chawaf's mimetic strategy
inherent in her womb metaphor: "ce que je dis a au moins deux
faces et deux visées: détruire, casser; prévoir l'imprévu,
projeter" ("Rire" 39).
Chawaf's recourse to feminine exclusion is to
poser le désir de femme . . . Poser, tracer la
femme existante, 1'aider á exister, se donner
existante, pas morte, écrire la femme vivante.
Ecrire á partir du corps vivant. Mais on a voulu,
on veut si souvent la femme morte, la femme
souffrante, la femme fantasme. La femme tradition,
celle qui n'existe pas. ("Ecrire á partir du corps
vivant" 119)
Chawaf, like Irigaray, views the first step toward
sexual difference as beginning right where one is. To
"Tracer la femme existante" is to trace the ways in which
Woman exists in the cultural imaginary, to mime the logic
and expose it. Chawaf tactically deploys the metaphor of the
uterus to counter the logic of the phallus:
puisqu'on définit l'homme á partir de son corps,
de sa physiologie . . . face á cet order qui a été
fait, il est peut-étre temps de voir 1'autre cóté
aussi. ("Discussion avec Chantal Chawaf" 135)
In "Ecrire á partir du corps," Chawaf decries the
symbolic devaluation of the womb:
L'utérus ne jouit pas du merne statut, on renvoie la
femme á la nature, á la chair, au corps, á la
jouissance, au sans-parole, á 1'indéfinissable de
la sensation, á une maternité utilitaire, faire des
enfants, non pas faire des ámes d'enfants, non pas
faire des esprits d'enfants. On la renvoie á ce

81
biologique tronqué. . . . ("Ecrire á partir du
corps vivant" 120)
In Irigaray's interview with Héléne Rouch in Je. Tu. Nous.
Rouch demystifies the psychoanalytic notion that the
separation of the psychic fusion of mother and child occurs
at the time of the child's entry into the symbolic, through
an intermediary, the "Nom-du-Pére" (47). The biological
reality is that there is no fusion in útero. Unlike the idea
that the fetus occupies the mother's body in the military
sense, her flesh is not the host for a parasitic intruder.
Allowing for peaceful cohabitation, the placenta mediates
between the bodies of mother and child and regulates the
exchange of nutrients and waste products. In order to
trigger the hormones that create the placenta, mother's
body--the self--must initially recognize the fetus as
foreign to her body. Most importantly, as Rouch indicates,
after this recognition of the other as "other," "la
différence entre le 'soi' et 1'autre est pour ainsi dire
indéfiniment négociée" (Je. Tu. Nous 45). Clearly, the
description of the placental relation is an idealized
construct, as is Irigaray's figure of the lips,- there are
cases when the placental fails in its functioning and causes
harm to the mother, the fetus, or both. This idealized
relation should be read in the context of Irigaray's
mimicry.
From an ethical standpoint, Chawaf's figure of the womb
offers a counterpart to ways of thinking that supports a
logic of domination and subordination. It is a figure of

82
union in difference, centered on generosity, a prototype of
proximity that would not require the effacement of the
other. Chawaf writes, "J'ai soif d'un flux et d'un désordre
qu'il ne serait pas urgent d'endiguer, j'ai soif de
générosité" (Rouoeátre 124). In maternal unity, each
individual retains difference. The mother-fetus relation
magnifies the error of dichotomous thinking, the folly in
the belief of complete independence of concepts, and
stresses inherent human interdependence.
Chawaf, ever critical of pinning down signification as
rational logic is wont to do, prefers a poetic mode and a
less restricted code. Suggestive of surrealist "écriture
automatique, " her writing figures a stream of prose flowing
from what is other to the conscious mind. Instead of centering
her metaphor on the quest to unlock the unconscious mind, for
Chawaf, the unconscious is rooted, above all, in body memory.
As she describes it, her creative power emanates from life
stirring in her womb; the form of her writing mimics the
pregnant body. Replacing the aesthetic concept of the pregnant
moment privileging the specular, Chawaf's écriture féminine
engages all the senses. Through rich onomatopoeia and imagery,
her lexical combinations evoke sound, sight, taste, smell, and
above all, touch. She describes her notion of maternity not
necessarily as biological event, but as an ethical stance,
an "attention á la vie, d'écoute de la vie á partir d'une
vie qui s'organise dans le corps de la femme" ("Discussion

avec Chantal Chawaf" 135). Womb writing, in terms of the
placental economy,
83
c'est une attitude, enracinée dans le corps, dans
une histoire du corps, dans une mémoire et des
perceptions du corps qui débouchent sur le mental,
sur le symbolique face á ce symbolique pére qui
régne depuis longtemps. ("Discussion avec Chantal
Chawaf" 137)
Her seemingly essentialist references to the feminine
maternal body have less to do with biological sex than "une
attitude psychologique":
féminin et masculin ne sont plus déterminés par le
sexe mais déterminés par une attitude
psychologique, affective devant la vie,
indépendamment du sexe qu'on a. ("Discussion avec
Chantal Chawaf" 136)
In her view a more apt term, one that applies to all humans,
would be "corps."
Round and circular, camouflaged with "une coloration
linguistique rosée, 11 the material words mimic the form of
the full womb, narrowing the distance between form and
content. This narrowing of the distinction between form and
content characterizes both écriture feminine and the nouveau
roman. although the ideology and "raison d'etre" behind
these two types of writing differs significantly. Unbound by
time and space, the metaphor of uterine connections evokes
the past of tradition, the present bond between mother and
child, and the future of the child's growth and evolution.
In Ethioue de la différence sexuelle. Irigaray develops
an ethics of closeness similar to the paradigm of womb
relations, a "phenomenology of touching" (Schutte's term).10
Chawaf too envisages an ethics of proximity as a point of

84
departure for refiguring the relations between self and
other and for healing injury. Instead of a relation of self
to other, Chawaf's maternal metaphor describes the
experience of self with other, the becoming of both fetus
and mother in a mutual interchange of give and take. Chawaf
describes the ethical intentions shaping her literary
practice:
Désir de sauvegarder, de préserver, de donner la
vie. Amour non pas seulement de la vie charnelle
mais de la vie spirituelle. [ . . . ] Pour que la
chair cesse d'etre primitive. L'écriture doit se
réécrire. Non plus loin mais tout prés du contact.
Au plus prés du toucher, du palper, du sentir. Au
plus prés de cette enveloppe humide de chair
animale qui sépare de nous-mémes le mot. (Le corns
et le verbe 13)
Just as the mother's body supports the life of the child, so
the fetus "melé á l'écriture" enables the creative act,
hence the liberation of her perceptions of her female body.
Toute expression, toute libération de la parole
vivante du corps actif, du corps en réceptivité,
du corps en travail sont politiques. [ . . . ]
elles peuvent modifier la parole politique,
1'aider á évoluer, á perdre sa rigidité et á se
rapprocher des hommes, des femmes, des enfants.
("Ecrire á paratis du corps vivant" 120)
In a sense, the mother and child represent two aspects of
the self, of what Chawaf calls a human's bisexuality. In Le
corps et le verbe the author argues that because humans
continue to repress their feminine aspect, one side of
ourselves ("11 interdite") wages battle against the other
("la permise"), perpetuating self-loathing and destruction
within us (Le corps et le verbe 10). As long as the battle
continues internally, this state of turmoil will be

85
reflected externally, preserving a vicious, injurious world.
The author believes that healing must begin with the
individual, and provides the maternal image, a non-violent
separation, as a symbolization of difference without
aggression. Although indicting the novel as the means by
which we perpetuate this crime against ourselves, she argues
that it is also from there that "tout peut toujours
repartir" (Le Corps et le verbe 10).
Peritext and Autofiction
As with many works by Chawaf's female counterparts
writing during the 1970s11, her first publication is woven
with details from her own life. Marianne Bosshard notes that
the author's parents died at the hands of German soldiers in
1943. Chawaf was taken from her dying mother's womb (216).
Not until adulthood did the author learn the story of her
parents' death--also that of her birth. Revolving around
questions of identity and writing, Retable's quest takes
place under similar circumstances. Ghyslaine's birth
experience mirrors the details of the author's trauma. By
interrogating her adoptive parents, the protagonist attempts
to learn the obscured "facts" about her birth parents. In
"Document (I), " an addendum to the first section of Retable.
the reader learns along with the adult Ghyslaine that during
World War II her mother was fatally wounded on her way to
give birth at the hospital. Before the mother's death,
Ghyslaine was born by caesarian. Also in the ambulance, her
birth father was killed immediately; her aunt perished some

86
days later. Presented in a traditional, chronological
narrative, "Document (I)" contains linear prose in contrast
to the nonlinear style of Retable-la réverie as a whole. In
this section, the protagonist's father reports the facts of
her violent birth, her parents' death, and the circumstances
of her adoption.
An indexed note accompanies the intertitle "Document
(I)," placed directly underneath it: "(I) Ces événements
ont, sur le bitume et sous les bombes de notre monde MALADE
eu lieu réellement" (Retable-la reverie 39). While the usage
of notes in the twentieth-century indicates the marginal
status of the information conveyed, this note appears in a
prime position on the page. Clearly the author seeks a
special effect, but to what ends? Genette points out that
intertitles and notes, "peritextual" paratextual elements,
are often construed by reader to be more or less beyond the
narration, put in place as guideposts to aid the reader's
understanding of the text. A reader often assumes that the
instruction comes directly from the author--instead of the
implied author. On the threshold between the inside and
outside, intertitles and notes belong to a realm of
confusion where the fictional and factual intermingle.
"Document (I)" seems to represent a real-life intrusion into
the work of art, embedding a subtext of autobiographical
avowal within the text. The note forces an encounter with
the dichotomies of real-life and fiction that keeps the
reader wondering. In this case, tension is created by the

87
urgency to reveal "what really happened" and Chawaf's
avoidance of engaging in a discussion of Retable-la reverie
as autobiography.
Perhaps the note reference is a way for Chawaf the
author to make a cameo appearance in her own work,
reminiscent of Hitchcock's minor roles in his own films: a
self-conscious device, akin to a spatial or temporal break
in the narration, to prevent the reader from entering this
document forgetfully, or from being lulled into a
comfortable, fictive place. Or, perhaps it is a parody,
masked by its serious tone, of a Rabelaisian sound bite, the
authorial "précis" of a chapter's contents as found in
Pantaaruel or Garaantua and in many novels of the eighteenth
century.
Interestingly, as easily as Chawaf refers to her
personal experience of maternity in the interview "De
Retable á Rouaeátre." she is less willing in later
commentary to connect events in the text to the
circumstances of her own birth. In this she differs from
contemporaries like Cixous and Cardinal who are known to
emphasize the autobiographical origins of their work, but
resembles more closely Duras, ever cautious to confirm
connections between her biography and her fiction. Virtually
every critical work discussing Retable-la reverie mentions
the uncanny circumstances of the author's birth, yet only
Bosshard documents discussion of this topic with Chawaf. In
view of her insistence on being read as a woman and her

88
claim to be writing life, what might explain the evidence of
ambivalence toward an autobiographical reading of this
novel?
What can be made of the contrast between her emphasis
on sexual difference, her desire to be read as a woman,
evident in her books and articles, and an avoidance of the
personal in interviews? Since Proust, the concept of
autobiography has become synonymous with autofiction. With
the French literary tradition in mind, it is clear that
Chawaf desires to be read as a woman where "woman" remains a
constructed concept. As she explicitly states, "Sexualité
féminine cachée par la sexualité masculine. Rendre la parole
á la femme. La femme? Ou plutot ma réalité de femme ..."
("Ecrire á partir du corps vivant" 119).
Even without its autobiographical echoes, Chawaf's
novel and readings of it would unavoidably involve the
question of autobiography and the "real-life" influences on
her work. As Genette points out, there are certain details
of an author's life that are always viewed as significant.
If the writer is not male, one of those notable aspects is
sex. Only works written by heterosexual men will be read as
sex neutral. In many cases, a novel written by a woman will
be interpreted through the grid of a "woman's novel." Of
course Chawaf has calculated that her sex bears on our
reading, that it conditions her texts' receptions. She does
not take issue with being read as a woman writer, on the
contrary, but repeatedly emphasizes the limits of the

89
concept of "woman," insisting on both its social and
biological aspects.
Titles and Construction
Retable-la réverie's architecture features an unusual
presentation. Two books bound together, each "separate" work
consists of a front cover, editorial pages, and back cover.
At the outset of this chapter, as soon as I put the title
into writing, I committed a faux pas--an unavoidable misstep
and a transgression of law (faut pas) .12 Written as
Retable-la réverie. grammar dictates that the text comprises
one whole, broken into separate but related parts with the
"second" logically following, and subordinate to, the
"first." Retable does end in ellipsis, indicating
continuation, but then, so does La reverie. Considered
within the context of Chawaf's oeuvre, such endings do not
mark the text as unique. All but two of her works,
Redemption and Vers la lumiére. conclude in suspension.13 An
examination of the pagination offers no definitive answer.
Retable runs to page 93, but La reverie begins prematurely
on page 101. If the pages in between are to be counted, the
second part should begin on 103. Chawaf explains this
penchant for unending borders:
Quand j'écris, ce qui compte, c'est de pouvoir
conduire l'écriture á circuler d'un texte á
1'autre, d'un texte dans 1'autre et de toujours
pousser, pousser l'écriture, de l'obliger á perdre
toujours un peu plus de terrain sous
1'envahissement de la presence du corps. ("De
Retable á Rougeátre" 88

Perhaps it would be more fitting to inscribe the work as
Retable-La reverie, as two separate, but connected novels.
What, then, can be made of their binding?
90
Although deviating with novelistic ritual, such play
with a work's structure and title seems only slightly more
inventive than traditional usage. But Chawaf's game is more
complicated than might be inferred in her suggestion of an
"open" novelistic structure. Chawaf1s text habitually leads
the reader to impasses, forcing her to interrogate and
challenge reading habits. For example, I can only address
the text if I give it a proper name. But if I name it
according to the grammatical rules of citation, I cannot
properly address it. To refer to the text(s) with proper
grammatical form is, paradoxically, to speak
catachrestically, to wander into what Plato called a
"strange and unwonted" feminine territory (Timaeus 48d), a
space where language confronts its own limits. Putting the
title into writing forces the choice of direction, a step
("pas"14) that simultaneously limits and opens up, errs and
wanders. Thus on the surface the title and frame constructed
by book sections seem to aid reader interpretation by
dividing her novelistic world into separate entities. In the
final analysis, though, the either/or logic of
classification they allude to ("should this work be read as
one text or as two?") actually leads to a dilemma, for
Chawaf's construction is neither one book, nor two. It
confounds the search for one ending, and gestures toward the

91
insufficiency of language to accurately, definitively
describe experience. In order to speak about the text in a
coherent way, I am forced to betray it, and am reminded of
this false posture each time I reinscribe the title.
Displacing the question of whether the work consists of one
novel or two, the focus shifts from what is represented to
questions about how it is shown and how it is received: an
interrogation of the architechtonics of the theater of
representation. Leading the reader to the impasse is
Chawaf1s way of awakening her to constructs taken for
granted, as givens, in both reading and living.
Thus, the title Retable can be viewed as a parody of
nominative conventions. Titling is conventional naming; it
serves the purpose of identification. Yet as a literary work
circulates among the public, acquires object status, and
becomes a commodity, its title becomes disconnected from its
identificatory purpose. Its reiteration subordinates the
descriptive function and materializes the verbal as object.
Once in the hands of editors, publishers, and the public, a
work of art takes on a new life. On the subject of the
incontrollability of her texts in the hold of others, Chawaf
confirms, "Les romans . . . ga vous échappe" ("Discussion
avec Chantal Chawaf" 131). Routinely viewed as descriptive,
titles have a performative function. According to Genette,
titling is an act of naming that mimics a creative power.
This creative power is often masked by conventional usage,
but not in the case of the blatantly discordant title

92
"Retable"--which implies, "this book is a painting." Chawaf
puts into question the novel's ontological identity by
implying, "This book is a painting," thereby setting up a
substitutive relation between the verbal and visual object.
What does her écriture féminine have to gain from an
approach centered on painting as a model? Instead of aiming
to prove the superiority of the verbal over the visual for
depicting "reality," the author engages in the ut pictura
noesis dialogue differently.
In S/Z. Barthes describes the circumstances of
novelistic engendering, employing theatrical terms to
describe how framing founds the novelistic universe:
Toute description littéraire est une vue. On
dirait que 1'énonciateur, avant de décrire, se
poste á la fenétre, non tenement pour bien voir,
mais pour fonder ce qu'il voit par son cadre méme:
1'embrasure fait le spectacle. (61)
In Barthes' scenario, the speaker positions himself at a
windowsill. In the case of Retable. the narrator takes her
place before an altar, offering herself up to a tradition.
The term retable designates a Renaissance altarpiece, a
triptych, composed of panels often featuring monumental
events surrounding the birth of the Baby Jesus. A retable is
the setting or support for the church's altar--a feminine
structure constructing the background of the religious
'stage'. The posterior part of an altar, it often evokes
saintly images of the Virgin Mary as an adoring mother
cradling her child. Retable's three-part structure also
mirrors a triptych. At the structural center of the novel,

93
the panel "Portrait" lies between the two related outer
ones, "Naissance" and "Mausolée." Thematically, the portrait
plays a significant role in Retable. as Ghyslaine's quest
revolves around the search for her mother's identity, which
is ultimately the search for her own.
Through the image of the retable, Chawaf's literary
process, like realism, exploits painting as a model.
Barthes, restating Aristotle, points out that realism
"consiste non á copier le réel, mais á copier une copie
(peinte) du réel" (S/Z 61). Of interest in this formulation
is the operation of copying a painted copy, for it unmasks
the exploitation of the pictorial as a device for sustaining
the realist illusion.
In her work of art entitled "Altarpiece: Resurrection,"
contemporary artist Margo Klass draws similarities between
texts' bindings and altarpieces. This latter's moveable
panels operate like giant pages opened or closed depending
on the liturgical calendar. The altarpiece, a feminine form,
is a figure of art constructed to fold back in on itself,
like the pages of a text, like two sets of labia folding in
on themselves. Recalling Irigaray's nonconventional metaphor
of two lips constructed to put into question Freud's
conceptualization of woman's sex as a little penis,
Retable's parts have multiple points of contact. They are
neither completely distinguishable each from the other, nor
separable. Moving in sync with the rhythm of religious
seasons, the figure of the altarpiece repeatedly turns back

in on itself, recalling an endless cycle of birth, death,
and rebirth.
94
Instead of obscuring the edges of the frame's embrace,
Chawaf's reference to the opening and closing retable draws
attention to its "bord," enclosure, wood, matter, "hyle," or
dynamic nature. To focus on the material is to draw
attention to the constitutive, but suppressed, maternal-
feminine. The retable resists a "masculin divinisé"
disguised as transcendental, its appropriation of the life¬
generating function, and the resulting wounds to the
collective social body. Although a retable features painted
scenes that reflect the Word, it also constitutes the
embrasure of the altar and is located in a feminine space,
the "enceinte" of the church.
The triptych's construction blurs the boundaries of
inside and outside, offering new perspectives. Through "ce
mouvement perpétuel," Chawaf's écriture féminine draws its
transgressive power for the purpose of putting into question
established convention:
II faut faire un travail sur soi-méme et les
lecteurs aussi, d'oü la transgression . . . cette
nécessité toujours de se refaire, de chercher plus
loin, d'avancer, de continuer, d'etre en mouvement
perpétuel et done d'obliger le lecteur--et soi-
méme parce qu'on est toujours lecteur . . . á
transgresser ses habitudes de lecteur, de lecture,
ses habitudes de pensée, sa vision, done toujours
aller au-dela. Toujours tout remettre en question,
tout subvertir, et dans ce mouvement perpétuel, de
ce désordre, de ce chaos auquel il faut toujours
revenir, á mon avis pour recommencer, recréer.
("Discussion avec Chantal Chawaf" 128)

95
In contrast to a two-dimensional vision of either/or
(visual/verbal, real/copy, masculine/feminine, sex/gender),
the multi-dimensional textual space of Retable-la reverie,
with its manipulatable parts, mimics the form of the
(female) body.
Reacting against the Romantic tendency to cover up
sources, modern and postmodern parodie texts often
incorporate references to other artistic media, a phenomenon
Hutcheon calls "trans-contextualization" (11). Retable's
paratextual elements and narrative incorporate references to
the visual arts (painting, sculpture and film), as well as
to the lyric (music and prayer), cut across the boundaries
between high and low culture, and mind and senses. For
example, in the text one reference to a nightclub singer not
only blurs the separation between artistic spheres but also
linguistic borders in its bilingualism. Ghyslaine overhears
her father saying, "Bien sur, on préfére toujours avoir un
enfant a soi . . . " (26). Immediately, a Sartrean moment of
jazz appears out of nowhere to quell her assumed feelings of
contingency and "nausée":
La chanteuse tape sur le piano et chante: tell me
who makes trees, who makes rivers, dites moi qui a
fait les arbres, qui a fait les rivieres,- elle
tremble du ventre, des seins. Dites-moi qui a fait
les rivieres, qui a fait les arbres, qui. . . .
(26)
We have already seen how Retable-la reverie's
inscription as title is problematic. The way the title is
written contains indications on how to read the book. But
considering that the title is circulated both visually and

96
verbally, how does it sound when read out loud? These two
terms are not necessarily separate. If they are heard as
Retable: la reverie. the domain of art and the realm of the
dream become overlapping, parallel worlds mapped onto each
other but mediated by their separation, as with life and
fiction. Thematically this can be supported. A figure of
joining and separation, the retable mimics the couple's
infinitely negotiated relation of erotic love in La Reverie.
Although grounded in Ghyslaine's everyday life. Retable's
narrative mirrors dreamstate discontinuity.
In any case, the separation between these two books
gives the reader pause at the threshold of the crossing from
one to another, before having completely left and before
entering anew. It speaks of the twentieth-century author's
grappling with the transition from copying the world to
creating a new one, from "permise" to "interdite." This
moment privileges the act of passage, the transitory state
of becoming, that for Chawaf holds boundless possibilities.
Cover Art
At the beginning of Retable, the protagonist Ghyslaine
asks her parents to describe her birth mother. Two
contradictory portraits emerge from their responses: an
idealized mother and a defiled one. Retable-la reverie's
book covers reflect this same dichotomy. True to the subject
matter of an altarpiece, Retable's artwork draws from
Christian imagery, an idealized version of woman. A
reproduction of a painting or fresco, the cover image

97
features the Virgin Mary, recognizable by her head shroud,
light hair, and serene air. The copy is colorless, except
for its yellow cast that evokes parchment paper, a remnant
of archaic times. The portrait on La Reverie1s cover shows a
statue of a female torso with yawning thighs, an "unlady¬
like" position. Decapitated and paraplegic, the fleshy,
plump Botticelli-type body and the breast in the upper right
corner allude to the female sex, although a drape reveals
nothing but a black hole between her legs.
At first glance, these images reflect the Madonna/whore
dichotomy criticized by feminist scholars. Representing
angelic goodness, Mary is the portrait of the ideal mother.
The statue, like a prostitute, publicly exposes its private
parts. Yet, their figuration as polar opposites is
deceptive. Xrigaray argues that such likenesses of "woman"
boil down to one and the same: representation of the
feminine only in terms of the masculine. According to
Butler, this sexual indifference, the absence of the
feminine, the either/or-virgin/whore phenomenon conditions
Lacan's connection of the acquisition of female sexuality to
the Virgin's assumption into the heavenly kingdom. In his
formulation, Mary's body does not undergo a normal being's
degeneration, but,
this assumption of sex is figured through the
upward travel of the Virgin, a figure of chaste
ascension, thus installing a prohibition of female
sexuality at the moment of ascending to 'sex.'
Hence, taking on a sex is at once the regulation
of a sexuality and, more specifically, the
splitting of female sexuality into the idealized
and the defiled. (BTM 267)

98
Woman as an idealization sets a norm that no female body can
perfect. What does failure to match this standard signify?
That "woman," locked into a state of imperfection, is no
body at all. For Chawaf, intellectual abstraction and
idealization cover up an ambivalent state of being:
nous nous idéalisons, nous nous stylisons jusqu'á
nous abstraire en idées fausses. Nous ne nous
symbolisons pas dans notre vérité ambivalente."
("Contre la fiction" 49)
Identity, like language, is bisexual.15 Deprived of the
symbolisation of sexual difference in a culture conditioned
by the self-same, "woman" as we know it is stylized,
idealized, and stripped of her jouissance.16 As a response
to a sexually (in)different philosophical and
psychoanalytical tradition, writers of écriture féminine aim
to create a feminine imaginary, a space in which female
desire, however shifting, might be articulated. In "Ecrire á
partir du corps vivant," Chawaf points to woman's lack of
sexual specificity as she is currently (mis)represented:
Sexualité féminine cachée par la sexualité
masculine. Rendre la parole á la femme. La femme?
Ou plutót ma réalité de femme, rendre la parole au
corps, á 11affectivité, á tout ce diffus, á tout
ce flottant, qu'on a pu appeler féminin, maternel,
mais qui pourrait aussi avoir d'autres noms, tous
les noms, puisqu'il s'agit de 1'indissocié, de
1'indissociable. Oú la chair, notre chair n'est
pas encore divisée, oú la vie n'est pas encore
morcelée, représentée encore en fragments.
("Ecrire á partir du corps vivant" 119)
Chawaf calls for woman's writing, even as she puts into
question the concept of woman. Far from an essentialist
discourse, this passage relate's Chawaf's view, like

99
Irigaray's, that for the nonce the feminine remains
indissociable.
In contrast to fuller pictures in Renaissance
altarpieces, the Mary on Retable1s cover is shown close up
as a body in pieces. If not immediately noticeable that she
is a bodiless head, the line bisecting her neck and upper
torso re-marks visually the symbolic division between mind
and body, higher and lower bodily functions. This mark
cannot be missed: for Chawaf, the problem that "contient et
génére tous les autres est celui de la séparation du corps
et de 1'esprit" (Le Corps et le verbe 21). The eye is drawn
to the bisection emphasizing a doubly chopped body. The
tracing of this line points the gaze outside the frame,
toward the absence of a body that has been cut off from
representation. Chawaf's central focus of critique in her
philosophical work, Le Corps et le verbe. is the sexually
indifferent "métaphore chrétienne du saint langage [qui] ne
parle que de Pére et de Fils" that appropriates woman's
reproductive powers, prohibits her desire, and renders her
property-less (21).
The Mary on the cover resembles more an enigmatic Mona
Lisa than a loving saint. She looks off to the left in a
shifty, almost defiant way, not matching her son's gaze.
Neither smiling nor frowning, her lips indicate indifference
to this role, ironically mirroring her lack of sexual
difference. Chawaf argues that the Word has only one genre:
a divine masculine. "Si le féminin subsiste, ce sera sous la

100
forme d'une androgynie cachée . . . trouble probléme
phallique de la Sainte Vierge" (Le Corps et le yerbe 21).
Stripped of her jouissance and obviously displeased about
it, this is not the good mother fulfilling her duty of
selfless devotion to her son, but a castrating one, as is
evident by her gaze, for "withdrawing the specular guarantee
wields the power to castrate," (BTM 88). Although it can be
argued that within the Christian tradition Mary is an
ambivalent figure, a nurturer but also a wielder of the
power of intercession, she is invested with power only to
the extent that He desires her to have it, that he grants it
to her. In Chawaf's view,
De la mere, il ne restera plus que Marie qui n'a
pas peché, la femme á 11intérieur énigmatique, non
pénétré, l'esthétique d'une madone vidée de ses
désirs de femme vivante. (Le Coros et le yerbe 26)
Such an ambivalent gaze can be said to be both an unfaithful
reiteration of idealization (Mary's nurturing function) and
a refusal of the defiled (the prohibition on her sexuality).
Using Butler's terms, we can take Mary's disembodiment
further. In Western mythology, she is the quintessential
figure of sexual erasure. On one level, she functions as the
receptacle whose participation in conception has been
foreclosed. As such, her nature might be compared to the
prototype of the mother in the Timaeus who is de-picted,
dispossessed in her representation, as a figure of "non-
thematizable" materiality (BTM 40). The mother as form,
copy, or any body at all in Plato's metaphor emerges from
his scenario as impossibility. Mary as Virgin Mother can be

101
compared to his catachrestic female figure, which according
to Butler, is "a disfiguration that emerges at the
boundaries of the human both as its very condition and as
the insistent threat of its deformation" (BTM 41).
On the cover portrait, the mother's body is not the
only bearer of violence. At the far left corner, barely
perceptible is the partial head of baby Jesus gazing up at
her. As a result of the cutting off of the page and the
Virgin mother's body, the child is hardly noticeable,
practically pushed out of the picture. More significantly,
he is unacknowledged by that most important vehicle of
recognition in a specular economy, the subject's gaze.
Prohibition of the feminine has severe consequences for both
women and men, according to Chawaf:
Dans cette lacune que représente notre langage
verbal, les hommes et les femmes sont autant
victimes les uns les autres, et ils sont les uns
autant que les autres victimes de leur privation
de langue vivante. (Le Coros et le yerbe 7)
The statue on La Reverie's cover refers explicitly to
the deficiency in artistic and philosophical representations
of woman, the limitations of the construction of woman's
sexuality. A nearly amorphous body, there is little to see.
Either hidden or altogether absent, the genitals are no more
than a black hole. This portrait can be read as a reference
to Freud's view of woman as a dark continent, and to the
Lacanian version of her as nonexistent, as simply the
support for the phallic fantasy of oneness. Lacan recognizes
a supplementary jouissance17 but places a prohibition on it,

102
naming it as an experience for which there are no spectators
and about which neither he nor she knows anything. Irigaray
uses this barred jouissance against him, recuperating the
neither/nor for her "mimétisme." Ironically, on La Reverie's
cover, this prohibition returns to haunt. "Editions des
femmes" is inscribed next to the gaping hole, poised to
penetrate it, re-marking the territory of the genital void,
and other-worldly jouissance, as a place of feminine
inscription. The cover announces the possibility of the
"l'en plus," a supplementary jouissance in the body of
Chawaf's text "over and above the phallic term which is the
mark of sexual identity" (Mitchell and Rose 137). This
playful positioning of "Des Femmes" could also be
interpreted as a tongue-in-cheek reference mirroring the
text's, and Ghyslaine's, births from a void.
For Chawaf as for Irigaray, it is necessary to
reiterate injurious stereotypes of woman yet to repeat the
performances differently, in order to reveal the instability
of the specular function. As Irigaray reminds us, a feminist
practice for subverting the economy of Logos, model-copy
mimesis, would not ask, "'La femme, qu'est-ce que c'est?,'"
but rather, would repeat and interpret
la fagon dont, á 1'Intérieur du discours, le féminin
se trouve détérminé: comme manque, défaut, ou comme
mime et reproduction inversée du sujet, elles
signifient qu'á cette logique un excés, dérangeant,
est possible du cóté du féminin (CS 76; TS 79).
Retracing images of woman as idealized/defiled, repeating
them so their silences might be heard, holds the possibility

103
of conceptualizing a feminine irreducible to the economy of
the self-same.
If the cover of the first novel refers subtly to
Chawaf's mimicry, the opposing page of La Reverie's cover--
the back jacket of Retable--blatantly parodies idealized
portraits of Woman. It shows a collage of repeated images of
head-shots of the Virgin. Neither neat nor uniform, the
composition seems to have been hastily pasted onto the page.
Cutting out and sticking on as done by an amateur, the
sutures are visible, along with strips of what might be the
background of the "La Dame et la licorne" medieval
tapestries popularized in modern times by Georges Sand. Of
the six head-shots, none are repeated exactly the same. In
fact, they appear to be cut and pasted photocopies of copies
of morcels of Renaissance retable paintings. Although of the
similar size, these images' differences result from their
découpage and collage, the latter laying bare the process of
cropping and pasting. All these copies of copies mirror the
construction of Retable's narrative, which resembles a
collage of a series of filmic scenarios, hastily sutured
together. They mimic the process of composition,
decomposition, and recomposition of Chawaf's mimetic
strategy, making visible the cuts and sutures enacted to
form a narrative. Once again, these portrayals remind the
reader that any image of woman should be the object of
feminist theory, not a foundation or ground. The back cover
announces the necessity to penetrate, to "retraverser" the

104
"miroir qui sous-tend toute spéculation," to reoccupy and
redeploy injurious stereotypes of woman (CS 75; TS 78).
Chawaf describes how, in the process of writing Retable, she
had to "retraverser l'isolement, le risque, l'angoisse, la
séparation, tout ce vide de la mére" ("De Retable á
Rouaeátre" 88). Difficult and dangerous, crossing back
through requires giving up the familiar in order to pursue
the unknown:
II me fallait sans doute encore perdre tout á fait
toute illusion, toute naiveté, toute confiance
envers le vieux langage patriarchal, envers les
vieux mythes de l'Art, de la Littérature, de
11Ecrivain et du Livre, il me fallait prendre
conscience que ma blessure était collective,
qu'elle baignait ailleurs le langage social. II me
fallait m'engager dans ce vide pour, de ma part,
réagir contre lui avec une authenticité maintenue.
II me fallait done quelque part en finir avec mes
propres traces patriarcales intellectuelles, les
effacer, les dépasser, suivre ce qui me restait
d'. . . . ("De Retable á Rouaeátre" 88)
For Chawaf, engaging woman's lack of symbolic representation
must take place on both aesthetic and social grounds.
A study of the paratext of Retable-la reverie explores
how Chawaf interrogates the conceptual limits of discourse in
terms of the novel and the concept of the feminine. While
playing a role in constituting the material existence of the
text, Chawaf's use of the paratextual prepares readers to
make cognitive shifts necessary to accommodate the author's
play with generic and gender convention. Perhaps it is the
permeability of paratextual spaces, their threshold quality of
allowing passage, that lend them so well to transgressive
parody, for they demonstrate the openness of discourse and its

105
instability. To play with the form of the novel, as Cixous
says, is to put into question the economy within which it was
produced. Indeed, Chawaf's utilization of the paratextual, the
varying elements of textuality including the material features
of book production, demonstrates the openness and instability
of discourse in which Chawaf places her hopes for aesthetic
and social change.
Notes
1 This judgment is based on assumed sales figures,
since Retable-la reverie is Chawaf's only book, thus far, to
be published in a pocketbook series. Of course, sales
figures and reprint decisions involve all sorts of variables
such as marketing, timing, and public opinion.
2 From this point on, this term, as well as "écriture
féminine," will be written without quotation marks.
3 In Bodies That Matter. Butler's employs this term to
describe what she sees as Julia Kristeva's (mis)use of the
maternal.
4 For discussion of the conflation of female sexuality
with "a mystification of woman as the site of truth," see
Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, Feminine Sexuality:
Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne (New York: Norton,
1983) 137, and Alice Jardine's Gvnesis: Configurations of
Woman and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985) .
5 This is not to say that Chawaf does not recognize
their enormous contributions to literature, and the
influence these and other canonized authors have had on her
work. Of Flaubert she says, "Ce travail stylistique du
romancier du XIXe siécle garde aujourd'hui sa valeur
exemplaire et écrire au féminin n'est pas s1exiler de la
littérature, ce serait plutSt tenter d'ouvrir la
littérature" ("Contre la fiction" 57).
6 See Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings
of Twentieth-century Art Forms (New York: Methuen, 1985).
7 Intertexual references are discussed in this chapter,
as well as Chapter Three.

106
8 See Susan Suleiman, The (M)other Tongue.
8 Discussion of the essentialist question is continued
in Chapter Three. I argue that the essentialist critique is
one reason Chawaf has not been given the critical attention
she deserves.
18 See Ofelia Schutte, "A Critique of Normative
Heterosexuality: Identity, Embodiment, and Sexual Difference
in Beauvoir and Irigaray." Hypatia 12.1 1997: 40-63.
Chawaf's practice in relation to Irigaray's phenomenology of
touching is elaborated in my Chapter Three.
11 See for example, Marguerite Duras and Xaviére
Gauthier, Les parleuses (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974);
Héléne Cixous and Catherine Clément, La Jeune Née (Paris:
Union Générale d'Editions, 1975) and Marie Cardinal, Les
mots pour le dire (Paris: Grasset, 1975).
12 See Derrida's essay "Pas" in Parages (Paris:
Editions Galilée, 1986).
13 See Chantal Chawaf, Rédemption (Paris: Flammarion,
1989) and Vers la lumiere (Paris: Des femmes, 1993).
14 In "Pas, " Derrida elaborates the double bind of such
a step: "Le pas qui rapproche é-loigne, réduit et ouvre en
méme temps, d'un méme pas qui se nie et s'emporte lui-méme,
sa propre distance" Parages 31.
15 "Le langage est bisexuel, bicéphale. II est á la
fois l'un et 1'autre. II est androgyne. Male et femelle.
Parce qu'il est humain" ("Le Héros, L'Héroine" 28-9).
18 I propose that in Chawaf' s writing the term
jouissance should be read in a feminist revisionist sense,
touching on both Irigaray's and Cixous's ideas. Irigaray
argues that (hysterical) jouissance is still paternal within
the realm of philosophy and the Idea. In order to write a
subversive jouissance, woman has only recourse to mimicry.
Cixous goes further, attempting to create images of
jouissance that can be read from a different angle. See
Irigaray, Speculum de 1'autre femme and Cixous, "The two
countries of writing," in The Other Perspectives in Gender
and Culture: Rewriting Women and the Symbolic, ed. Juliet
Flower MacCannell (New York: Columbia UP, 1990) 191-208.
11 As he notes, there is "a jouissance of the body,
which is, if the expression be allowed, beyond the phallus.
That would be pretty good and it would give a different
substance to the MLF." These comments lead one to wonder if

107
Lacan's supplementary jouissance came from his desire to
throw a bone to the MLF. See Jacques Lacan, Encore: Le
séminaire XX. 1972-3 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975) 145,
Mitchell and Rose, Feminine Sexuality, and the article "Cosi
Fan Tutti" in Irigaray, Ce Sexe aui n'en est pas un 85-108.

CHAPTER THREE
MIMICRY: QUEST AND DREAM IN RETABLE-LA REVERIE
L'art du romancier n'est-il
pas de mettre au monde? Mais
de quel monde s'agit-il?
Chawaf, "Le Héros,
L'Héroine"
In Creative Mythology. Joseph Campbell articulates a
dynamic concept of mythology differing from the traditional
type. Traditional mythologies utilize prescribed symbols
through which an individual might come to experience
"certain insights, sentiments, and commitments" (4). In this
context, mythological symbols provide a catalyst for a
powerful experience of accord with the social order that
leads to participants' feelings of harmony with the
universe. The world changes and with it the values of its
societies, but Campbell notes that its institutions adapt
more slowly. When the latter no longer meet the needs of
individuals, authorized mythologies become ineffective,- the
beliefs they symbolize clash with emerging values. Lacking
mythologies that fit, humans become disassociated from the
social nexus. "Coerced to the social pattern, the individual
can only harden to some figure of living death" (Creative
Mythology 5). Yet a sense of quest "within and without, for
life" accompanies this zombie-like state. When many in the
108

same era take up the quest, major shifts in social
consciousness, and the social order, are at hand.
109
How, then, do mythologies adapt, continuing to provide
meaning? Part of the power of mythological symbols lies in
their transformative capacity. They are instruments of
social systems, serving to alter lives, but conversely, they
are tools in the hands of individuals, open to alteration.
New variations--Campbell calls them creative mythologies--
are produced by those who relay significant personal
experiences through signs. Principle mythological themes
endure, but only in variation. Creative mythologies "have
the value and force of living myth--for those . . . who
respond to it of themselves, with recognition, uncoerced"
(4). Campbell cites two such periods of collective
dissociation in recent Western history, marked by Rousseau's
1749 Discours sur les arts et sciences and Eliot's 1922 The
Waste Land. To this list of what Campbell describes as
"visionary" texts, I would add the "archetypal text of
écriture féminine," Chantal Chawaf's Retable-la reverie
(Hanagan, "Woman as Lacemaker" 546).
This addition is perhaps improper, for Retable-la
reverie takes as its subject the "universal" experience of
motherhood from a woman's perspective, and highlights the
limits of its purported universality. Her écriture féminine
reveals a conception of motherhood as it is produced within
a discourse marked by a sexual, cultural, and economic
history. In Campbell's use of the term, visionary implies a

110
singular view of human Nature that unites all existence and
to which individual differences are subordinate. As Barthes
remarks, this vision is conditioned by an ahistorical
perspective on language: "qu'il y a au fond...une 'nature'
identique" and that individual diversity "n'est que formelle
et ne dément pas 1'existence d'une matrice commune"
(Mythologies 174). Doubly improper, Chawaf's écriture
féminine wrestles with the linguistic limits within which
the experience of motherhood is thought.
Chapter Two examined Chawaf's use of parody and
Retable-la reverie's paratextual elements, and thereby
addressed questions about feminist representation, how to
define a novel, the economy of the reader/writer
relationship, and the connection between writing and life.
Chapter Three explores Chawaf's feminine writing of the body
as a subversive mimetic strategy and a locus of
metamorphosis. It demonstrates how her hyperbolic use of
convention enacts a performance of gender norms: it co-opts
stereotypical conceptions of female materiality and desire
in a subtle yet paradoxical way in order to undermine them.
Chawaf's expanded use of the maternal metaphor is understood
in the context of a creative mythology, as a refiguring of
the myth of Woman. Tracing the quest and the dream, it
examines Ghyslaine's search for her birth mother and the
journey to resurrect her through the act of writing. On a
symbolic level, her quest explores the desire to and
difficulties of writing "otherwise" in an economy

Ill
conditioned by the self-same. Throughout Retable-la reverie,
the following question remains central: what social/sexual
positions result in an exclusion of the feminine, and how
fixed are these exclusions?
Résumé
Staging a series of psychological and moral passages,
this feminist Bildungsroman marks the implied author's
initiation into writing and the protagonist's initiation
into adulthood. It explores the problematics of a female
self's development within a society that offers no
representation of her birth mother.
Formally structured, Retable's chapters break up into a
bodily transformation from birth to death: "Naissance" and
its sub-section "Document (1)"; "Portrait"; and "Mausoleé."
Yet, this trajectory promises a disciplined textual body
that the narrative does not deliver. In contrast to Chawaf's
description of Retable's genesis as a flowing, effortless
act of communication, reading Retable-la reverie is a
difficult task. This novel elicits strong emotions in
critics and reviewers, whose comments range from violent
dismissal to elaborate praise.1 In any case, Chawaf's work
does not leave readers indifferent.
From a technical standpoint, the reader is tossed into
a swirling narrative pool of discourse with very little
anchor in space, time, or person. Plot is scant, characters
undeveloped. Places go unnamed. Events do not unfold
chronologically. Anonymous voices speak from nowhere. Agents

112
are often unidentifiable. Dialogues take place out of
context. Fragmented syntax, technical, archaic terms,
uncommon vocabulary, and copious descriptions become
overwhelming. Despite the abundance of action verbs, nothing
much happens. Often the text seems to be going nowhere, and
doing it slowly. Few indications situate the narrative in
time and space. Point of view shifts without warning. For
the most part referents are either ambiguous or
nontraceable. Exposition on the pages is uneven, full of
blank spaces, evoking, as does the language, silences, gaps,
and hollows. While many images are repeated excessively,
others appear out of nowhere and disappear without
explanation. At times it is necessary to turn back the pages
of the book to make sense of events. At times, moving
forward in the narrative takes one back through earlier
events. Often, as the narrative progresses, it replays prior
events. Up to the last line, paths followed to trace the
labyrinthian narrative reach impassable walls. Nonetheless,
the major moments in the novel can be outlined.
In Retable. Ghyslaine sets out on a quest, seeking
facts about her mother in the hope of discovering her
identity. In comparison to the other parts, the first
section "Naissance" enables a fairly straightforward
reading. Like a series of filmic scenarios, hastily sutured
together, flashbacks of the protagonist's childhood are
mixed with thoughts and actions in the present. Ghyslaine
questions her parents about her mother. On a family trip,

113
Venice is presented through the eyes of a child: endless
strolls through tiny streets, meals of pasta and ice cream.
Over and over, she imagines the traumatic scene of her
parturition during World War II, abandonment by her birth
mother, and imagines her would-be life with a loving,
supportive mother.
In the first part of the subsection "Document (1)," the
Narrator's adoptive father reveals information about her
mother, procured years earlier from the adoption agent. At
the age of twenty-five, during one of her adoptive mother's
nervous breakdowns, Ghyslaine learns that the facts
elaborated by her parents were lies intended to shelter her
from the details of her mother's violent death. The first
four pages of "Document" contain a dialogue between the
adoption agent and the protagonist's adoptive father a few
weeks following her birth, and this dialogue is embedded in
a discussion between the latter and the adult Ghyslaine.
Through this conversation, the central focus of the novel
becomes explicit: the work revolves around the absence of
the mother. A shift occurs as Ghyslaine's quest for the
mother's identity transforms into a quest to rewrite her;
the only possible story to be written is that of the Mother
who does not exist.
"Portrait" announces the intention to tackle the quest
differently. It retraces details of the first book, replays
over and over events from "Birth," recasting them and mixing

114
them with the Narrator's commentary. The distance between
the Narrator and Ghyslaine is no longer clear.
In "Mausoleé," the Narrator strolls among the ruins of
flesh attempting to give body to her mother, to capture her
through the act of writing. Her endeavors are characterized
by violence and frustration at "nos corps á 1'abandon," at
the vicious cycle of our rejected and rejecting bodies (92).
The final paragraph asks how it might be possible to
progress beyond a place of devastation, desolation, and
annihilation.
The task of deciding which aspects to discuss in
Retable is problematic. A few exceptions aside (most notably
the mother's absence and Ghyslaine's quest to know her),
elements are not weighted. This holds true at the levels of
theme and sentence. To cite an arbitrary example:
Brille clapote m'enveloppe mais les seins
sucrés de drogue cuisses lévres spasmes ferme son
regard son monde sous des anus lactation écrasée
résistance des tentures deux yeux noircis suintent
du mur les masses militaires recouvertes d'un
blindage avancent déterminées á continuer
d'avancer m et fleur de lys dorés sur du bleu azur
porte ouverte sur la campagne ensoleillée 6 Notre
Dame du Bon Secours exauce notre voeu ange en
armure pierre une tete en pierre sans cou nez
mentón détruits á deux cents kilométres d'ici. . .
â–  (36)
Continuing in a similar manner for two and a half pages,
this sentence-paragraph. Elsewhere, in contrast to sentences
of Proustian length, anonymous dialogues occur, series of
utterances without catalysts or responses:
-Non.
-Merde.
-Done.

115
-Bon.
-T'as mis.
-Ouenh.
-J1éteins.
-Je n'ai pas faim. (27-28)
The novel leaves one wondering what choices, if any, can be
made that are not arbitrary. Frequently, as in the above
examples, Chawaf's use of language approaches poetry; it
privileges sound over meaning, pushes rational, linear
discourse to its material limits. Whether overloading a
sentence or stripping it down, Chawaf's use of language
magnifies the gaps inherent in communication. How easily one
signifier substitutes for another, and another, and another!
Her extraordinary linguistic manipulation calls into
question the extent to which meaning can be controlled, as
well as the existence of "le mot juste."
La reverie recounts scenes of sexual desire and love-
making between an unidentified woman and man, or perhaps
several different women and men, in what begins with
allusions to a mythical past but in which appear references
to modern times (101) . Fluctuating between the banal and the
mesmerizing, the narrative describes a woman's desire for a
man and his love for her.
As the above outline suggests, with the novel's
progression an attempt at summary becomes increasingly
difficult. Packed with images, symbolism, dialogues, and
events, the details of this overstuffed "récit" resist
simple elaboration. Retable and La reverie produce two
dramatically different reading effects as well. In tandem

116
with the protagonist, the reader searches anxiously for
meaning in Retable's narrative world, constantly in pursuit
of solid ground for interpretation. Dark and depressing, the
text provokes anxiety. It encourages an interrogative
stance, but provides few answers. Reaching the subsection
"Document (1)" that explains in straightforward prose, the
implied reader might well breathe a sign of relief, delivered
from the onslaught of violent, somber words and images that
would not reduce neatly to a meaningful whole. The release
would prove short-lived as she is then plunged once again into
the oppressive textual world. Yet, from time to time, direct
narrative speech in parentheses intervenes, interjecting
commentary, perhaps to be sure we do not lose sight of the
purpose, opening with questions like "Réussira-t-elle á vous
émouvoir?" and "Ou bien vivrait-elle si nous n'étions pas
aussi affaiblis?" (61, 72).
On the other hand, reading La réverie is like dozing
off to sleep in a warm bath. Images glide over the reader,
lulling her into an imaginary state of order and plenitude,
as if submerged in the pleasurable dream. Passing from one
scene of lovemaking to another, the text initially elicits
feelings of harmony. Only when the woman gets up to leave
the scene for the first time is the spell of the dream-state
interrupted.

117
Retable
Naissance
Immediately disorienting the reader, Retable opens with
a scene of a child in útero. The womb is barely
recognizable, composed as it is of elements unnatural to the
human body: grass, batter, wool, and trees. In this initial
image, Chawaf takes to extremes the idea that Woman is
closer to nature than males. Instead of a comforting
enclosure, she paints a black and white landscape of
violence against bodily organs audible in the onomatopoeia
of her word choices: "Les nations s'écrasent entre leurs
máchoires . . . gestes broient, cassent, choquent,
disloquent" (7). The emphasis on the verbal onomatopoeia
contrasts with the scenography painted in "neutral" colors.
Yet, all the elements violate the womb, even the child.
Elements exterior to the mother seem to dictate the infant's
relation to her. However, the child's acts of destruction
turn back against it and wreak havoc on its body: "1'enfant
mort écrémé, replié sur lui-méme en nid, en rale" (8).
On the following page and after a large white space,
the next lines signal the protagonist's inner turmoil: "Durs
et coupants, les debris, caches en moi. J'erre" (9).
Ghyslaine seems to have internalized the destruction of the
mother in the first passage. The rhythm of the sentence
poetically mirrors a self in pieces, as does the phallic,
cutting debris. In addition, the prescription "J'erre" binds

118
the protagonist and the reader in errantry and errancy. She
searches for her dead mother hoping to find her alive, just
as the reader in search of meaning seeks to discover the
life force of the narrative, to order the pieces of its
puzzle, to organize them into a coherent whole with
beginning, middle, and end. Yet, as we shall see, such
quests prove futile. The "I" resembles the state of the womb
in the first passage, as well as organs of the dead soldiers
ripped apart by flesh-devouring nations. The debris remains
deep inside her, painful and self-destructive, yet hidden
and repressed. Ghyslaine longs to escape her painful
condition and sets out on a quest towards an obscure,
undefined elsewhere: "Je voudrais partir. J'ai peur. Je n'ai
nulle part ou aller. Je voudrais étre loin. Ailleurs" (9).
The enunciation of this undefined "ailleurs" does not create
a utopian elsewhere for which Ghyslaine searches, yet in
naming its absence, she opens the possibility that it might
exist. This technique, the negation of negation, is repeated
throughout the "Naissance" and forms part of a pattern of
textual mimicry. In the following passage, for example, the
repetition of double negatives, transforms the mother's
absence into a negated presence:
sans elle, sans elle, sans son absence, sans elle
. . . sans mon besoin d'elle . . . sans mon
manque d'elle, sans mon intuition d'elle . . .
sans sa lueur blond cendré, sans sa peau Claire
comme un lait qu'on ne m'a pas donné, qu'il doit
étre si apaisant de boire, sans le clignotement de
la lumiére blonde, sans le pincement de mon coeur,
sans 1'envie de me blottir á 1'intérieur de son
ventre, d'etre regue dans ses bras, cachée dans
ses bras immenses. (18)

119
It is as if, through marking her mother's absence, she is
able to embrace the mother by imagining, to drink her milk
and take refuge in her arms, in the midst of the lack.
However, Ghyslaine's errantry gives rise to error. As
promised by the cover art, echoes of two conventional
depictions--the idealized Madonna and the defiled whore--
resonate throughout "Naissance." At this point Chawaf dwells
in what Barthes describes as "un énorme lieu commun de la
littérature," in which "La Femme copie Le Livre/L'Art" ÍS/Z.
40). Ghyslaine's quest begins with a direct interrogation of
her adoptive parents about her birth mother. In the first
pages of the narrative, the protagonist only knows how to
ask the woman question in the same way: "Comment était-
elle?" This question elicits vague responses from her
father:
-Comment était-elle?
-Je 1'ai vue.
-Tu 1'as vue?
-Plus grande que ta mere.
-Comment était-elle?
-Plus grande que ta mere.
-Comment était elle?
-Blonde. Elle avait de la classe. L'air
autoritaire,- elle savait ce qu'elle voulait. (9)
Her birth mother was of stereotypically "superior" stock:
tall, blond, aristocratic, according to the father, whose
responses are limited to comparison with the adoptive
mother. The statement "Plus grande que ta mere"
authenticates his words, yet in its repetition also
underscores the limitations of this view. With the question
"Comment était-elle?" Ghyslaine errs. Akin to "La femme,

120
qu'est-ce que c'est?" her mode of inquiry belongs to the
specular economy, for it is grounded in a search for Woman's
essence. Based on teleological logic, the interrogation
takes the same form: eliciting opposite images that
nevertheless belong to the same type. The autobiographical
references in Retable simultaneously pay tribute to, and
subvert, a legacy of rebellion vis-á-vis the self,
consciousness, and bodily materiality in French literature--
from Montaigne's aim to paint an objective portrait of
himself in Essais. "je suis moi-méme la matiére de mon
livre," to Breton's "Qui suis-je?" in Nadi a. Although Breton
destabilizes the centered subject, from a feminist
perspective he does not go far enough. His quest for
identity is still traced through the body of a female other,
the enigmatic, unknowable Nadja. "Woman" remains the cryptic
medium through which self-knowledge may be attained.
Although Chawaf replaces Breton's masculine "I" with a
feminine "she," the question still belongs to the masculine
mode based on positivist logic. It sets the stage for a
detective-like approach to subjectivity: that the reader's
quest for the story, following along with Ghyslaine's, will
lead to the unveiling of one detail of the mystery that will
answer definitively all questions: the discovery of Woman's
essence. Thus, at first, the novel sets the stage for a
detective-like approach to subjectivity of a descriptive,
rather than a performative, nature.

121
This self-same portrait has consequences for the
perception of both Ghyslaine and her birth mother. Even when
her father evokes the latter as a strong, independant woman,
" . . . elle savait ce qu'elle voulait," the image sends a
mixed message. The Narrator hears negating intent behind his
well-chosen words:
(Father)--Blonde. Elle avait de la classe. L'air
autoritaire; elle savait ce qu'elle voulait.
(Ghyslaine) Me laisser--Elle marche dans des
couloirs de clinique--La lumiére est grise--Me
laisser--. (9)
Ghyslaine also turns to her adoptive mother for
answers. Again, responses are mixed but more directly
negative:
<<-Elle n'était pas mariée. Elle avait l'air
trés doux.
Elle avait sans doute obéi á sa famille.>>
-Elle paraissait süre d'elle, forte. C'était
une femme qui devait avoir des aventures (9).
In the best possible light, the mother is presented as a
naive young woman in love with an older married man (10). In
any case, she was a liar: "elle a dit que c'était un
professeur de math. Elle a dit ce qu'elle voulait. C'était
peut-étre un bouseux" (10). The parents present themselves
to the girl as her redeemers, an identificatory position
that requires an abject other--the mother as an evil,
abandoning individual. They do so, perhaps, out of fear of
rejection, or as an attempt to mask what they see as their
own defectiveness: the inability to conceive a child. Note
the insistence on "pas" and "pouvoir":
Quand on peut pas, on peut pas. II faut pas
s'obstiner. On pouvait pas: on pouvait pas! Bien

sür, on préfére toujours avoir un enfant á soi.
(26)
122
The parents' feelings of inferiority mirror a society that
values reproduction and nine months of gestation more than
the lifelong devotion required in raising a child. Chawaf1s
critique also points to the double bind of females whose
situations deviate from the norm. A birth mother who places
for adoption does not raise the child. She is, therefore,
not a mother. Paradoxically, in the eyes of society, neither
is the adoptive mother a "real" mother, since she could not,
or did not desire to, give birth. Where, then, does this
leave the "motherless" child? Social stigma accompanies the
splitting of biological and social roles. But what would
happen to the social structure if the reproductive function
did not serve the interests of social institutions? if blood
ties were not valued as the strongest bond between
individuals?
As the child's inquiries pile up, the cover-up becomes
more apparent; her mother becomes increasingly threatened,
and consequently more shaming: "Pas de nous, pas de nous
mais de ces inconnus douteux comme la propreté des verres de
cantine" (35). Ghyslaine's birth becomes a beastly act in
which her mother (and herself) are the dumbest of domestic
animals:
-Ma petite filie, pa, pa ne s'appelle pas mettre
au monde; c'est mettre bas comme les vaches. Elle
n'a méme pas eu le courage de se faire avorter.
Ghyslaine's reply, "Si elle avait eu ce courage, tu ne
m'aurais pas," provokes an abrupt "non" ending the

123
conversation (10). The mother, in an effort to prove her
superiority to the birth mother, marks Ghyslaine with shame
and unworthiness.
The birth mother's presumed abandonment of the girl
shapes the latter's perception of herself, hearing an
anonymous voice defiling her: "< la guerre qu'ils ont ramassée á cause des mauvaises femmes
tout en sexe et en peur>>" (11). The silence speaks volumes.
The Narrator's repetition of the parent's negative
interpellations does not reiterate them faithfully.
Presented by her as dislocated in space and time, grouped
together, they cease to reiterate faithfully, and thus
reveal "facts" to be lies. Yet, evoked in retrospect from
the vantage point of adulthood, the anonymous voice sounds
empty and hollow, like the lies that shaped the negative
vision of herself. As the narrative continues, the "comment
était-elle?" is transformed into an ugly joke, a "qu'est-ce
qui . . . ?" alluding to the mother's sex in the banter of a
child's joke:
Qu'est-ce qui est jaune, dilaté, tres ouvert?
Béant? [ . . . ] Qu'est-ce qui? . . . blond . . .
mais vide . . . mais je ne. (11)
For Freud, woman's nature was a dark continent to be
explored, but also a riddle. Chawaf demonstrates how such
images lead to a breakdown in language, Ghyslaine's
inability to speak coherently, to conceptualize her self
through the distorted portrait of her mother. Thoughts of

124
abandonment and the accompanying physical illness are made
manifest as linguistic fragmentation:
Je n'ai plus la force d'attendre, debout; je
m'assois. La tache noire est en train de
s'élargir. J1attends, blottie. Personne ne vient.
(11)
Yet for Chawaf dissolution regenerates: it provokes a crisis
in the subject that becomes a catalyst for change. Ghyslaine
and her family travel to Venice. As her mother says, "les
rues, les canaux de Venice," the voyage and its passages,
"ga nous changera les idées" (11).
Chawaf describes her literature as aiming to represent
"les mots la oú ils manquaient. Elle explore le vide, la
béance, l'intérieur, l'obscur," the moments in which silence
speaks more loudly than words and when the speaking subject
is no longer master of its own universe ("Le Héros,
L'Héroine," 28). Dark, depressing, deviating from the
prototype of an écriture féminine that should be "playful in
the ordinary sense of lighthearted, or just plain funny,"
the author is judged to have missed the mark (Suleiman,
168). Nonetheless, I contend that Chawaf's vision is not
shortsighted, but that her critics have miscalculated the
scope of her literary world. Speaking of Duras, the author
notes that
Le style travaille la perte pour que les mots, les
phrases adultes des humains s'écartent. Le passage
alors est libre, non pour la mise au monde, mais
pour que nous nous y délivrons du monde. Pour
qu'un sommet apparaisse au-dessus de notre ciel
trop socialisé, trop terrestre, trop coupé de
l'enfance. Quelque chose de la virginité du
langage est saisi dans un élan verbal
paroxystique, inspiré, oü la vie et la mort

125
n'existent plus. Ce sont les points culminants de
l'écriture durassienne, ses traductions
littéraires d'un état de grace, d'une sorte de
coma de la souffrance, d'une résurrection par le
style. ("Puissance de la langue" 242)
Although mockery serves parody in a powerfully transgressive
way, it is not the only tactic of parody for the purpose of
deliverance from a destructive world. Hutcheon points that
parody is "repetition with critical distance, which marks
difference rather than similarity" (A Theory of Parody 6).
Such critical distance can be achieved through laughter,
although for Chawaf it is manifest in "un élan verbal
paroxystique," or linguistic impasse. In the attempt to
recreate oneself through language, new forms must nonetheless
be intelligible. In the narrative, there is a constant tension
between sections of extreme linguistic innovation and of
direct address to the audience, often in the form of
questions. For example, in "Portrait" the narrator asks,
Réussira-t-elle á vous émouvoir? Aucune limite,
aucun caractére ne la définissent, pas méme la
restriction d'appartenir exclusivement á une
espéce. (61)
What, then, of Chawaf's own redemption effected by
style? On the one hand, the repetition of the false images
in "Naissance" reveals their devastating effect on the
protagonist, and provokes an ontological crisis, the
disintegration of Ghyslaine's "I." On the other hand, the
author's imagery of the Madonna and the whore unveils the
hyperbolic character of these representations and subverts
the notion of "natural" bodies by demonstrating that
identity categories are always catachrestic. Both Irigaray

126
and Butler expose the role of metaphor in the construction
of identity and so thereby deconstructs the divide between
the literal and the metaphorical, and the primacy of the
first term over the second. Just how can stereotypes of the
feminine be denaturalized? Through "nature," Barthes argues:
Le corps réel (donné comme tel par la fiction) est
la réplique d'un modéle articulé par les codes des
arts, en sorte que le plus 'naturel1 des corps . .
. n'est jamais que la promesse du code artistique
dont il est par avance issu ... la réplique
corporelle ne peut s'interrompre qu'en sortant de
la nature: soit vers la Femme superlative . . .
soit vers la créature sous-humaine. (62)
Significantly, such reiteration opens a transgressive path;
it flaunts the limitations of the scene of representation
and gestures, however fleetingly, toward something beyond.
In turn, the evocation of an "elsewhere" opens a passage in
discourse for thinking that which was inconceivable, and the
possibility for delivery from an economy that forecloses the
maternal-feminine.
In "Naissance," the oscillation between portraits of
the good and the vile mother culminates in a white space,
one of what Chawaf calls "human zones"--blank spaces of
madness and suffering, because wordless:
zones humaines sans mots, sans phrases . . . zones
humaines livrées á la folie, á la souffrance muette, á
des formes délirantes." ("Le Héros, L'Héroine" 32)
Disrupting the temporal frame, belonging neither to past nor
present, a hysterical laugh bursts out of nowhere: "un rire
de femme, comme un croassement, traverse les cours vides"
(10). Irigaray and Cixous have attempted to appropriate and

127
retheorize hysterical laughter as a specifically feminine
transgressive act, akin to parody in its excess, as an
outlet for ongoing cultural repression. In Retable. this fit
of excessive laughter signals disgust with a female sexual
body whose jouissance, whose desires and rights, have yet to
be symbolized. The laughter in Cixous's and Irigaray's
texts, which mimicks hysteria, confounds a one-to-one
relation as well as a smooth transition from intended
meaning and effect. To what degree might this hollow
laughter, loading absence, undermine a valorization of
presence over absence as well as notions of linguistic
fidelity? Echoing in an empty manner, the image of laughter
in a courtyard exaggerates the silenced reverberations of
utterances. Its use also capitalizes on Lacan's reading of
hysteria as a symptom of a sexual reverberation between male
and female, a sexual ambiguity proper to any speaking and
desiring subject.2 Could it be that the accumulation of
dislocated, fragmented language in Retable aims to
hystericize the reader, by placing the latter at the
windowsill of interpretive madness, and threatening to
propel him out of a world where multiple signification can
no longer be suppressed? where masculine and feminine are
not completely separated concepts?
Chawaf's summons to "write life" and "reality" have
been conflated with realism. However, distinguishing her use
of these terms provides a broader perspective. For the

author, to portray reality is to evoke what has been
repressed, namely the material, bodily world:
128
la langue écrite . . . a á passer entre les
interstices, les orifices, les failles et doit toujours
en tirer les mots, la réalité, les miroitements
versátiles, contrariés, instables de la vérité et
verbaliser ces rumeurs, ces senteurs, ce fracas, ce
silence de la peau, de la chair, de la rétine, de
l'oeil, des lévres ... en apprivoisant la sauvagerie
humaine dissimulée dans . . . toutes nos négations
hostiles. ("Contre la fiction" 52-53)
Chawaf's "écriture de la vie" refers not to realist
representation where the existence of a center is assumed
and different ways of seeing, along with other values, are
suppressed. Engaging with Stendhal's realist mirror, her
formulation decenters the flat plane of the reflective
surface and emphasizes the multiplicity of perspective: "les
miroitements versátiles, contrariés, instables de la
vérité." Reality is never singular; it is composed of
multiple, opposing mirrorings that signify many things at
once, contingent upon the angle of the gaze. The writer must
lend voice to the silenced rumblings, to the multiplicity of
bodily realities in protest to a singular version.
Another blank space follows the moment of laughter,
holding it open briefly, then the narrative shifts in time
to a present tense ambiguous in its lack of context yet
which can be interpreted to be the protagonist's adulthood.
The scene turns to Ghyslaine's exit from, significantly, a
movie theater. Feeling the fabric of her clothes molding her
body, she watches others watching her: "Je croise, comme de
breves lumiéres, les regards d'inconnus" (10). According to

129
Le Petit Robert, "breves" signifies "bref," as well as
"laconique" and the phallic "tranchant." Do these "bréves
lumiéres" enlighten Ghyslaine in her becoming, or cut it
short?
In a long-term study conducted with girls, Lyn Mikel
Brown and Carol Gilligan found that once girls reach
adolescence, they begin to look at themselves through the
lens of others.3 The researchers describe such a phenomenon
as an attempt by adolescent females to embody an unrealistic
ideal of perfection. With clothing and make-up, they learn
to alter their appearance according to societal norms. Study
participants reported listening to their voices through the
ears of others as a means to modulate their tone and
language usage. The girls identified this type of self-
monitoring as a strategy to help them avoid negative
interpellations associated with improper women who speak too
loudly, who have too many opinions, or in whatever way, do
not appear "womanly." "Naissance" is peppered with images of
Ghyslaine objectified by the gaze of the other, as in the
following example: "II sifflote. II me regarde" (26).
In keeping with the cutting specular, Ghyslaine
perceives her body as a "corps morcelé." In one instance,
she visually picks her leg apart, evaluates it, and presents
it as the only body morsel found satisfactory: "le mollet
est rond, bas,- la peau blanche á grain fin, la cheville
étroite" (27) . But suddenly her legs no longer belong to her
in view of their perfection; they are her mother's: "Mes,

ses hanches dans la glace de l'armoire" (27). In the next
sentence, like Ghyslaines's body, language breaks apart:
130
Reps toi scendre diner fraiche. Pimpante. Lent.
Gris. Fissures. De petits cercles noirs qui
rampent sur moi, sur mes bas, sur la descente de
lit. (14)
Her body becomes text through a process of linguistic
dislocation. Marked with black circles that erase all traces
of her body, it can no longer be distinguished from its
setting, the bed.
Images of womanly perfection in magazines filtered
through the camera's lens set an unattainable standard
against which Ghyslaine defines herself negatively:
Peau séche. Les épidermes délicats des publicités
de magazine. Des millions et des millions de
femmes. Mon nez dont la forme n'est pas assez
réguliére pour me venir d'elle. (21)
The same page features a scene in which Ghyslaine inspects
her face with the aid of a mirror. In keeping with
tradition, this act might represent a subject's pursuit of
self-knowledge, or of gratifying narcissism. In contrast to
the portrait of a woman who admires herself to take pleasure
in her beauty or to confirm without a doubt that she is
beautiful,4 the protagonist's relationship with the mirror
reflects the anxious narcissism of one who gazes in hopes of
finding some beauty in herself. In this instance, the
protagonist engages in a game frequently played by
adolescent girls. She stares in the mirror and fantasizes
her features becoming more perfect:
Méme si la forme de l'oeil droit, petit, verdátre,
est modifiée, si l'oeil gauche ... II s'ouvre,

131
il s'agrandit, se déplace, il se déplace, c'est
son oeil, s'approche du nez, tnéme si les cheveux
chatain foncé, blond cendré, un chignon mousseux,
beaucoup plus belle. (21)
Yet the mirror is conspicuously absent from this scene,
thereby putting it into question as the epitome of
representational accuracy. What reflective support, then,
reflects Ghyslaine's vision back to her? Perhaps it is an
internalized image of a fantasized model female who is
"beaucoup plus belle," projected by the camera lens of
magazines. Her game of imagined metamorphosis produces a
fleeting vision of satisfaction, but ultimately an
unsustainable illusion--her body cannot approximate the
ideal. Darkness overtakes her features, thwarts the
transformation, as if turning her to stone:
Le beige de mon teint brouillé fait résistance.
Impossible de la voir, d'aller plus loin. Mon
visage devient matiére dure, épaisse, opaque. (21)
In its lack of referent, the generalized pronoun "la" free-
floats, referring perhaps to Ghyslaine's mother, to a model
in a magazine, or to a universal ideal woman, as if to
denote female (in)difference. A few lines later, the stone
image returns in Ghyslaine's perception of the city and its
disembodiment of nature, women, and individuals:
Tout est en béton, en ciment: herbe, nuages,
robes des femmes.
La masse d'une tour au pied de laquelle les
etres humains semblent inutiles. (21-22)
In their lack of differentiation, humans appear helpless and
impotent in the shadow of the phallic tower, like a
panopticon constantly controlling and disciplining bodies.

132
Throughout "Naissance," Ghyslaine's vision of other
female characters mirrors her perception of herself as
hollow, empty, and disembodied. Terms describing the birth
mother are formulaic: she was blond, tall, and from the
north. Her long, white neck arouses admiration. At first
this choice of image seems startlingly out of place in a
progressive feminist novel. It appears that Chawaf
perpetuates an archaic form of Woman in all its ideality.
But the epic proportions undermine the stereotype. The
portrait of the mother harks back to formulaic
characterizations prevalent in medieval literature, those of
an Isolt or Guinevere, and parodies them in its montage-like
presentation. Might the author be playing here with the
notion of woman as identified with orality (in literature
closer to the oral tradition), Freud's formulation of her as
two mouths, the tradition Irigaray draws from for her labial
morphology? In any case, such an insistence on the formulaic
shifts the reader's focus away from "essence" to a closer
look at the processes of construction, decoding, and
reconstruction involved in the acts of writing and reading
the body-text.
Idealizations like the portrayal of the birth mother
are what O'Neill calls in Fictions of Discourse "absent
whole characterizations" (49). As with stock characters,
images describing the adoptive mother and other female
characters ring hollow in a parody evocative of the
grotesque and Bergson's formulation of the "mécanique plaqué

133
sur du vivant." In the few physical descriptions presented,
the adoptive mother appears as accessory, a black coat and
wig, a secondary, inessential player assigned to the
masquerade: "A cóté de moi, le manteau noir de ma mere,
souriante, pleine de bonne volonté et amertume dissimulée"
(13). Although the adjective agreement exposes the emotions
as clearly belonging to the mother, the syntax attributes
them to the coat. These displaced feelings are evident in
another description of her mother's happiness. The girl
reports, "J'ai senti le noir de son manteau moins épais"
(14). Ghyslaine represents her adoptive mother as used and
devalued: "Ma mere comme une vieille gamine sacrifiée, les
prix des menus, son manteau noir, son ventre opaque, ses
boucles décolorées" (16-17). The girl perceives herself in
cloaked terms as well. Like her mother who is prone to
nervous breakdowns, she accepts more or less successfully
the masquerade, the inessential materiality of her sexually
indifferent body, and feels the urge to "tout exhiber":
Bras de ma mére sous mon bras. Son manteau noir
contre mon manteau. lis m'ont achetée. Ils ne sont
pas mes parents. <<-Je peux tout dire, tout
exhiber>>, <>, dit ma mére. (16)
On a literal level, Ghyslaine threatens to expose the
unlawful purchase of herself as a baby during the war.
Nonetheless, "exhiber" strongly connotes a public unveiling
of the genitals with the compulsion to shock. Earning the
girl the appellation "folie," the prospects of revealing her
sexual (in)difference are threatening, a sign of madness,
especially when haunted by the psychoanalytic specter of the

134
female genitals as the absence of a penis, therefore a void,
nothing to see.
The stripping of the women's humanity fuels Ghyslaine's
desire to rebel. The last reiteration of the adoptive
mother's empty portrait--"Je n'ai plus beaucoup de temps, me
disent le manteau noir, la perruque de ma mere"--triggers a
glimpse of a world being emptied of its structures, its
oppositions, and its ruse:
A notre approche, quelque chose semble quitter les
canaux, quitter les fagades des palais, quitter le
silence, quitter la lune, quitter le soleil,
quitter les étres humains, quitter 1'Adriatique,
quitter le lierre, quitter, quitter, quitter. Nous
reprenons le bateau pour la traversée en sens
inverse. Sur le pont, les yeux de ma mere guettent
l'eau, la brume, l'anecdocte, les silhouettes
d'églises, tout ce qu'elle pourrait partager avec
moi. (17)
This passage alludes to an ambiguous future of abandonment
as well as expectancy. It warns of the imminent death of the
only mother she has known, and the experiences shared with
her, however vacuous. Yet, there is hope. The masquerading
mother's time is limited, as are the constraints of an
entirely oppositional lunar and solar, feminine and
masculine world. The demise described is one of the coat and
wig, the end to one-dimensional portraits of her mother,
herself, and the other characters, images of artifice, but
not the essence, however undefinable, of her adoptive
mother. This death belies the way in which human beings, and
specifically women, are represented within the economy of
the self-same, and calls for regeneration.

135
"Quitter, quitter, quitter" is a plea for a voyage
departing from the superficial anecdote of "woman," from the
silhouette of/from the Church, and from the veil of the
masquerade. In short, it announces a journey from the
culturally shared images attributed to the feminine to
another world where the negative and negating portraits
might signify differently: "reprenons le bateau pour la
traversée en sens inverse," back through the instrument of
her oppression, back over uterine waters.
Yet, moving beyond the universe of masquerade proves to
be more difficult than the previous passage implies. Female
characters' sentiments alternate between strong hopes of
moving beyond a location and the impossibility of doing so.
Once on board the boat for passage from Venice,
les yeux, les entrailles de ma mére guettent,
avides, espérent, mais rien, il n'y a rien, que
des avenues semblables oú nous marchons pour rien.
(17)
The search proves futile as long as "chaqué mot, chaqué
image, privé de sa maternité," remains empty of meaning
(19) .
As with the many symbols in the work, intertextual
references abound. In one particularly striking example, the
text seems to mime the speech of Beckett's Vladimir and
Estragón from En Attendant Godot. The following dialogue
recalls, in order to recast it, a hauntingly comic scene of
the emptiness of modern existence. It is reminiscent of
Vladimir's and Estragón's expressed desire to leave the
barren landscape they occupy and their inability to act:

136
-Hein?
-Oh! Ben!
-Tiens!
-Oh! Ben!
-Ben, bien.
-Bon, ben.
-Je vais p't étre étre. J'fous le camp parce
que . . . zoup!
-Quand méme cent kilométres de moins, hein?
-Tu veux une pince pour t'épiler?
-Bon, ben, j'mange.
-Ah bon.
-Heu.
-II n'est pas bon mais n'est pas immangeable;
loin de la!
-Hein!
-Pas pas bon mais pas fin.
-Ce qu'il y a de moche.
-Hein?
-Ces pompons. (24)
Doubly oriented as Bahktin conceives of it, dialogue refers
to something in the world as well as to a speech act of
another--the iterative aspect of language Butler draws on
for her theory of performativity. Chawaf's intertextual
reference highlights discourse's functioning as an echo-
chain of discursive citations. As Butler notes, speech acts
are citations of existing norms that serve to reinstall
their normative boundaries. What happens to the echo-chain
of signification in the case of dialogue without a referent?
In this particularly brilliant move, Chawaf reiterates
Beckett's own parody of the workings of language, and mimes
a difference already in play. She mimes the already empty
speech of Vladimir and Estragón, in a text that doubly
illustrates the distance between itself and its object, even
while crossing over that distance. In her version, it is
clear that the speakers are overly contented with the
mediocre: "il n'est pas bon mais n'est pas immangeable, loin

137
de la!" From a feminist standpoint, Beckett's En Attendant
Godot does not go far enough. If his vision contributes to
shattering a fixed conception of the sign and referent, it
nonetheless lacks a reintegrative element--however
provisional--important to Chawaf's écriture féminine.
Breaking the echo-chain serves a purpose, but the disruption
of the symbolic should not end on a note of futility. The
exposure of the boundaries of language must be accompanied
by regenerative efforts. Poets must create new mythologies
to live by, continuously recreating them, even with the
knowledge that the search for new forms will never end and
that the new mythologies will never quite fit. Why engage at
all in this seemingly futile exercise? Chawaf would argue
that it is a question of life and death for bodies that do
not "matter." From an ethical perspective, the quest must
continue. The sound of a faint heartbeat, an affirmation of
life, moves the Speaker forward: "La paroi est á quelques
centimétres de moi. Quelque chose d1interne qui palpite
encore" (26).
Seeing through the parents' fabrications incites
Ghyslaine to reinvent her birth parents. In lyrical prose,
evocative of incantation or prayer, she calls upon the name
of the father to evoke a more satisfactory portrait of her
mother, her parents' loving relationship, and this
conceptualization furthers her descent, her regression back,
into the womb:
Pére, pére. Mále. Male de la femelle. Mere aux
larges hanches d'oú coulent le beurre fin et le

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lait gras, la biére blonde. Je descends. Pére. Ma
mere si belle. Tu la désirais. Tu te couchais sur
elle parce qu'elle était blonde, grande, oú je
m1 engage, oú je commence á descendre, douce,- ma
mere, en elle, je dors, que l'homme avait choisie,
douce; mon pére qu'avait choisi la femme d'oú
coulent la biére blonde, le vin, le lait gras, le
beurre, sur la terre reconnaissante et j'étais,
moi, blottie prés du bruit de son coeur." (34)
This passage illustrates well Chawaf's version of textual
mimicry. Its reversal of the masculine and feminine
displaces the latter's subordination and "rend toute figure"
including Ghyslaine, "á sa naissance" (CS 76; TS 79). In
order for the feminine to emerge, male becomes subordinate:
"Male de la femelle." Masculine and feminine nouns and
connotations are mixed. The masculine nouns "beurre" and
"lait," with feminine connotations, are replaced by the
feminine noun "biére." At first, this reversal appears with
subtlety--the syntax suggests the substitution of the two
former terms by the latter: "d'ou coulent le beurre fin et
le lait gras, la biére blonde." But beer resembles a blend
of butter and milk, sharing fluidity, and possessing the
color of the former as well as the frothy consistency of the
latter. As the passage progresses, the ever-flowing feminine
"biére" is again modified by other elements: "d'ou coulent
la biére blonde, le vin, le lait gras, le beurre." According
to Irigaray, a feminine "style" would work on the utterance,
the word, even the phoneme, and Chawaf's text do so. The
alliteration of "é" throughout the passage signals a state
of harmony, a rhythm in which both the similarity and
difference of the terms "pére," "mére," and "biére" can be

139
heard. Each invocation recalls aurally the others, and light
filters through the passage, in the repetition of "biére,"
"blonde," "beurre," and "lait," painting a portrait in sharp
contrast to the black and white vision in the opening
passage of the novel.
Breaking with the rules of normative syntax, the
passage emphasizes a flow, a reciprocity similar to that
between mother and child in útero: "ma mére, en elle, je
dors, que l'homme avait choisie, douce; mon pére qu'avait
choisi la femme." The object of each sentence occupies both
subject and object positions, while the subject is embedded
in the sentence. Each term moves into the proper place of
the other without effacing it. Even at the most basic level,
Chawaf's style confounds linear reading "pour désamorcer la
puissance de son effet téléologique" (CS 77; TS 80). She
exchanges linear, one directional discourse for a
relationship of proximity.
In the next paragraph, the linguistic utopia of the
reciprocal relation, the beginnings of a new figure of the
mother cannot be sustained. In her "certitude," she falls
back to idealization:
Certitude qu'elle était belle, douce, la plus
douce, la plus fine, si fine, trop fine, rose de
blé, de sensibilité, de fragilité, son large front
médiéval en bois sculpté et peint bleu et or,
féminité distinguée, Notre Dame du Bon Secours,
Reconnaissance, putain vieillissante aux cheveux
jaunes criards qui rigole, qui rigole. (34-5)
Lacking renewed images of the woman, Ghyslaine departs from
the "douce" and the imagery of the Flemish "big blond" of

140
the previous passage, then slips into the more traditionally
French "fine" and "fragile," a glorified ideal. The appeal
to "Notre Dame" leads inevitably to its antithesis,
"putain." In yet another attempt, she becomes her mother
giving birth to herself:
Je suis ma mere, en sueur, qui pousse, les dents
serrés, s'arréte, inspire, recommence de pousser,
m'expulse. Je crie. Elle ne veut pas de moi. Elle
m'abandonne. Je l'appelle. Je sanglote. Elle est
un visage fixe, plat, éloigné, incrusté dans le
béton du mur. Elle ne contient personne. (36)
Ghyslaine's attempts unearth repeatedly a fossilized
portrait of her mother, an archaic imprint that "ne contient
personne," attesting to the difficulty of creating a new
mythology of her birth mother. A final attempt to regress to
the womb in "Naissance" leads her to an underground world of
caves, canals, and underground passages:
Je m1engage la tete la premiere, mais au lieu
d'atteindre le bleu concave la luminosité de 1'eau
ou j'aspire á étre contenue tout entiére toute nue
je descends le long des décombres mon oppression
augmente me couvre de poussiére de toiles
d'araignée ... en bas toujours plus bas. (38)
Instead of reaching the tranquil light of the uterine
waters, or in mythical terms, the river whose passage leads
to the other world, Ghyslaine descends with difficulty into
the dark night of the unconscious in hopes of resurrecting
her lost mother.
Document (I)
Freedom from illusion comes for Ghyslaine at the age of
twenty-five in "Document (I)" as her father reveals the
events of her birth and details about her birth parents. In

141
a note, the reader is addressed directly: "(I) Ces
événements ont, sur le bitume et sous les bombes de notre
monde MALADE eu lieu réellement" (39). And yet the quest
does not end at this point. It is significant that the
"truth" comes from the father. While he appears to impart
the information in earnest, he, representative of the
patriarchal order, also, at an earlier stage, perpetuated
the lies. Her mother knew nothing of Ghyslaine's birth. The
father's unveiling of the secret provokes an apocryphal
scene akin to those in scripture. Such a revelation is
fitting in view of Ghyslaine's perceived oppression and
hopelessness, the latter like birth pains heralding the end
of a violent, destructive epoch deprived of the maternal-
feminine. She appeals not to a masculine divinity, but to
the forces of a phallic, penetrating Mother Earth:
Tout ce que tu pénétres, tu le fécondes, 6
mere. Tout ce que tu pénétres finit par contracter
sa matiére dégénerée pour mourir comme les
étoiles, 3 mére, pour que recommencent les
bourgeons, recommence l'enfance, et que toi,
brillant de plus en plus fort par dessus l'agonie,
le meurtre, 1'injustice, la douleur, tu
t'intensifies, alternativement créant et
détruisant, chérissant et abandonnant avec une
force égale jusqu'á la purété totale. (46)
Through an appeal to redemption, the Narrator gives voice to
her dream for a renewed world without destruction,
abandonment, or isolated flesh, and a new language without
form, color, or discriminating lines.
However, this revelation appears to be only reverie.
Referring to the mother, Ghyslaine reiterates twice, "Mais
tu n'es pas cela" (44, 46). She then continues her descent

142
into the underworld: "en bas, le sang s'écoule du terreu
fissure, égorgement au lieu des jardins que je n'ose pas
regarder car á l'existence il faut s'adapter" (46-7).
Retable choreographs an ambiguous dance between hope and
frustration, motion and stagnancy. Repeatedly, the difficult
passage through the dark world of pain and death gives rise
to Ghyslaine's desire to deliver herself from suffering, and
ends on a call to move forward:
Par dela votre propre mere et votre propre vie.
Souffle.
Et s'élance. (51)
In her English version of the work, Mother Love. Mother
Earth. Monique Nagem translates these verbs without subjects
as "Blows" and "And Leaps" (36). In my opinion, Nagem's
interpretation softens the impact of the final two lines of
this section. Separated by white spaces, the placement on
the page indicates the weight of these words, as does their
final position. In the context of the quest, "Souffle"
should be read as an imperative, ambiguously summoning
Ghyslaine, or the reader, to "Exhale," before plunging
forward into the unknown.
Portrait
The "portrait morcelé" in "Portrait" differs from the
idealized/defiled version of woman in "Naissance." As with
"Naissance," "Portrait"'s narrative produces a complex
tapestry of intersecting threads. Not simply a
representation of events, this section simultaneously

143
reconstructs the past and reshapes the present in order to
put into question a future destined to retrace the steps of
the past to thereby continue a legacy of destruction. By the
time the reader reaches this part, she has been bombarded
for forty-some pages of discontinuous narrative, packed with
symbolism and repeated scenes of devastation, of war-torn
bodies and villages. As the Narrator reiterates, the novel
contains a "portrait morcelé de ce dont l'homme n'a jamais
arrété de priver l'homme" and announces explicitly "il faut
maintenant que nous renaissons" (53). Ghyslaine's descent
back through the images of war and oppression continues.
Despite the call for a rebirth, the attack on life proceeds
unabated. "Quelles traces pourraient renvoyer á sa vie,
restaurer ses formes actionnées par le vent? résoudre son
absence?" the Narrator asks, as long as "la femme est morte
ou que j'aille" (67).
Nichola Anne Haxell, discussing Retable-la reverie,
argues that
the imagery it generates does not refer back in
any explicit or implied way to its own status as
text; there is no discourse on word or language.
("Woman as Lacemaker" 560)
Underlying Haxell's comment is the assumption that Chawaf1s
work does not participate in sophisticated modernist
techniques. On the contrary, I argue that the most
technically intricate literature of the twentieth century,
including Chawaf's novels, reflects the conscious shift from
artifice to attention to artifice. Miming criticisms of her
text as too material, as too excessively feminine, Chawaf

144
depicts a performance in which the Narrator re-stages the
bodily violence of her birth and her mother's death. Like
actors on a stage beholding a vision that the reader cannot
see, by-standers discuss with an unnerving calm the dying
mother, as they watch and hear her bleed profusely: "Ils
écoutent son sang jaillissant bouillir" (75). Without
concern for helping the woman, the spectators' thoughts do
not extend beyond themselves:
-D'oú il vient, ce sang?
-Pas de nous, nous ne saignons pas.
-Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce sang?
-Chez nous, la guerre est finie.
-Qa ne nous fait pas mal. Nous ne sentons rien.
-II nous est etranger, incompréhensible. (75)
Despite the horror of the on-lookers' self-involvement,
Chawaf's parody is not devoid of humor:
-Comment tant de sang peut-il sortir d'une seule
victime?
-Et qui a été tuée, il y a déja plus d'une
génération. (76)
Mode mixing occurs frequently in the novel, be it of tone--
the serious and the absurd--or of narrative style--shifts
from the individual experiential mode of lyric poetry or the
public, action-based narratives of theater. In this
mockingly self-reflexive passage, Chawaf mimes anticipated
reactions to her writing. Making it explicit through
exaggeration, she exposes what she views as a deep seated
repugnance of the body rooted in philosophical and aesthetic
theory. In response, she offers her own critique of an
ideology of textual propriety:
-Faites quelque chose pour que ce sang se calme.
-Il y en a trop. C'est agagant.

145
-La sensibilité se lasse.
-Nettoyez les trottoirs.
[ . . . ] -Ce spectacle de femelle morte nous
dégoute.
-La chair n'est pas intelligence. Ce n'est pas la
chair qu'il faut aimer.
-Tant de sang, c'est du déséquilibre.
-Ce sang force un peu.
-II devrait se reteñir, se maitriser, se diluer,
s1intellectualiser, s'abstraire, au lieu de salir
nos trottoirs.
[ . . . ] -l^a ne nous concerne pas.
-D'un organisme á 1'autre, il y a discontinuité et
distance.
-C'est notre systéme de protection, grace á Dieu.
-Sinon, comment pouvoir continuer avec tous les
autres en deuil, ces guerres, ces catastrophes qui
n'arrétent pas?
-Ou alors, il faudrait changer!
-Assez parlé! Lavez vite nos trottoirs!
Chawaf implicitly connects a system of intellectual
abstraction to a loveless world that destroys the flesh in
the misguided hope of safeguarding individuals. The viewer's
distorted perceptions of the profusely bleeding mother as
nothing but a nuisance to be tidied up signals a willful
refusal to see reality differently, in all its complexity.
In "De Retable á Rougeatre," she demystifies her emphasis on
images that wound:
Je me méfie d'une écriture qui ferait jouir
continuellement, je préfére 1'écriture qui permet
de percevoir le corps tel qu'il est opprimé, tel
qu'il est acculé á la souffrance, á la solitude,
au silence, á 1'impuissance de son amour. II ne
faut pas résoudre artificiellement dans 1'écriture
ce qui dans le corps, dans la vie n'est pas encore
libre. (88)
In a literary practice of nonexclusivity, images of the
dark side of the human psyche serve an important
function of raising awareness of what it means to be
human. Each individual must encounter the good and the

146
destructive within, and choose to act with awareness of
the consequences. Whereas in other narrative sequences
the author addresses the individual reader directly
using "tu" or "vous," such a tactic risks losing
authorial influence over members of the audience who
are not prepared to identify with the role she assigns
to them. In this shift of form, the author aims to
activate in the reader . . . that collective
participation that enables something closer to
active "performance" to replace the "well-wrought
urn" of modernist closure. (Hutcheon 99)
Indeed, when forced to examine the devastation of war,
death, and suffering as a participant in its theater, how
can the reader persist in reducing "life" to intellectual
abstractions?
Paradoxically, following this scenario condemning
abstraction, the quest to rewrite the mother continues with
recourse to ancient metaphors of "woman" as nature.
Perspective shifts as the subject of the quest, "I," becomes
"la petite," regressing to childhood (67). In one short
paragraph after another, "la petite" tracks through a
forest, then a rural space, traveling through a landscape of
images whose forms imitate bodily structures. At first the
little girl moves toward a dark forest, a sort of collective
unconscious:
La petite marche, á l'intérieur de la forét
communale, vers la menuiserie, á travers les
taillis sous futaie, les chénes verts sous les
sapins résineux dont, serrées, les cimes ombrent
et empéchent encore de communiquer avec le laitage
et il y a des rares éclaircies, une croupe
musclée, mouchetée de fourrés et d'eau de pluie oú

147
observer les veines sinueuses; les marbrures du
mufle, du ventre prés de terre, gercent, et les
flaques, les reflets des branches moussent aux
reins et les poils doux, follets, les nervures
saillant sur les pis irrigués, sur les comes ou
sur les feuilles, frólent. (77)
Approaching the grove, the girl's vision is aided by
Nature's own hand--flashes of light and cleansing rain.
Through the latter, the little girl envisions a Tree of Life
with bodily contours, a sketch of Mother Nature whose
reflections lightly brush the canvas on which She paints
herself: "les nervures saillant sur les pis irrigués, sur
les comes ou sur les feuilles, frólent." As providers of
nourishment, shelter, and medicine, trees have long been
linked to a feminine principle. Ancient peoples often
envisioned the cosmos as a giant tree, the key to great
mysteries. Why would Chawaf rely on the figure of Mother
Earth to flesh out her "écriture de la vie" when many see
this trope as means to perpetuate feminine (in)difference?
Mythological symbols transcend the ordinary, as Campbell
points out: they "touch and exhilarate centers of life
beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion"
(4). Chawaf's seeks to exploit the power of this figure,
recasting it to serve her own ends.
In "Portrait" Chawaf begins to denaturalize "nature"
through the metaphor of Mother Earth. Anthropomorphizing the
tree as a female body, the author hyperbolizes the
comparison using unconventionally explicit images to portray
an ancient metaphor, pushing the signifiers used to
represent nature to their symbolic limits. Surreal images

148
strike against commonplace ones--those of the woman
undertaking tasks traditionally performed by females:
lacemaking and housekeeping. In such roles, she occupies the
marginal spaces of a cupboard, an empty cave, boxes of salt
and flour, a sideboard, and an earthenware pot:
Les fourrures á cornes défendent contre le froid.
Et la petite s'épuise vers de sapins enneigés,
vers des sabots; quotidienne, une ménagére
astique, besogne (elle est denteliére, bahut,
rouet, Flandre, pétrin, cave voütée, boite á sel,
boite á farine, panetiére, terrine); les vieux
carreaux du sol transportent la petite vers les
signes oubliés. (82)
Yet both ambiguously full and vacant, this accumulation of
hollow spaces also holds the promise of creation, for She is
a lacemaker. From the flour and salt within her, She can
form, mix, and remix a new batter. An empty cave, she is
also a womb through which rebirth could take place. It is
believed that in prebiblical customs of regeneration,
magical incubations took place in sacred caves. The
reference to floor tiles also alludes to the pagan origins
of a rebirth ritual appropriated by the Church. The narrator
implies that reenacting such a rite of passage might lead
her back to the forgotton symbol of the Great Mother
Goddess, the source and the Tree of Life. The protagonist
longs to be held in the ample embrace of this metaphor:
entre les branches, entre les filandres, entre les
écheveaux, entre les filaments, entre les meches,
entre les torsades, entre les cordons, entre les
rubans, habitacle, blondeur de fil oú elle est
allumée, oú elle s'encadre, oü elle se tisse comme
si elle allait venir, Blond cendré, tout prés de
moi (qu'elle me close de son blanchiment, de ses
remparts crénelés, de ses rideaux, de ses bras aux

149
ampies manches péristyles!) y loger, m'y souder.
(83)
Chawaf emphasizes the mother's capacity to weave herself
between the lines as a condition for the possibility of her
jouissance. The "I" seeks shelter within a space of ornament
and accessory--a space framed and woven by the mother
herself--in order to reconnect with the maternal-feminine
principle from which she has been severed.
Mausolée
In the last section of Retable. the Narrator descends
to the mausoleum in hopes of excavating her mother's
remains. The stroll amongst the ruins of the flesh is a
metaphor for the quest for feminine specificity through the
act of writing, and it relays the difficulties of such a
project. The Narrator proceeds blindly, "Je tourne les pages
á tátons," hesitantly, and painfully:
Papier, les chiffons, la robe timbrée, vélin,
machée, parchemin, pelure, réduite en páte hors de
la marge s'élévent en poussiére, je paperasse, je
me décourage.
[ . . . ]
Je compulse. Je me heurte contre la roche. (90-91)
Seeking to alter the stultified imagery of the maternal-
feminine so deeply engrained in the collective psyche, she
faces a task of monumental proportions:
ses lineaments aux postumes proportions de
monuments, leur résistance, leurs cathédrales,
leur pépites, leur solidité, leur permanence, qui
transíigurent, rythment en pulsations minérales,
la décomposition, la précarité. (92)
Resistant societal constructions slow the Narrator's
journey. The world around her begins to freeze, plunging her

150
into a state of hibernation: "La vie se raréfie,
s'effeuille, géle, -200°C, -270°C, -337°C, -350°C, -338°C,
j'avance, désolation, frigidité" (92). Yet, while the
cessation of her motility appears to impede the quest, it
paradoxically signals transport to another dimension.
Ghyslaine's immobilization marks her passage into slumber,
into the realm of the dream. At this point the Narrator
abandons the line of questioning begun with "Comment était-
elle," and releases her futile desires to "know" the mother.
The focus of inquiry shifts from "who?" to the more
important questions of "how?" The Speaker asks,
Comment nous tirer de la dévastation? De la
désolation? De 1'enfilade des fautes? Des ruines
de la chair? De 1'anéantissement? Qu'avons-nous
fait pour perdre la saveur de la terre-mére? Mais
progressons vers elle! Qu'on nous permette enfin
d1aimer, de passer en zone d1amour. . . . (93)
The primary focus of the quest becomes the future
conceptualized as a return to the past, a dream of the past,
as the Narrator wishes to explore uncharted territory, a
space of feminine inscription connected to the flesh, the
body, the maternal feminine.
La Reverie
Perhaps the Narrator exited the mausoleum at the end of
Retable, but in the opening passage of La reverie she
lingers in the graveyard, continuing her quest above the
tombs. In a nightmare space of death, the reader first
encounters fragments of a skeleton, long bones "d'aspect
féminin," "presque plus rien de reconsituable,

151
d'identifiable" (101). As abruptly as it began, the
encounter with unidentifiable remains concludes; an
anonymous speaker begins to recount a tale set in the
mythical past, "<>"
(101).
Like an archeologist, the narrator unearths the shards
of her mother's corpse destroyed by war. Although assembling
the bones "d1aspect féminin" cannot reconstruct the mother's
body in its original form, in flesh and blood, nonetheless the
remains are composed of matter and therefore charged with
energy. This energy, and that of the remnants of the myth of
the Mother Earth Goddess, line the interior walls of the
narrator's memory and her system of belief like the ruins of
an ancient civilization in a cave. For Chawaf, both
destructive reality and utopian myth provide fodder for a
reconstituted narrative of sexual difference. From the ruins
of her mother, the Narrator-archeologist unearths the flesh
and weaves a creative mythology--in the context of the
quotidian. As in the dream, in this quest for the
reconstruction of sexual identity the metaphorical is
privileged over the literal. The first two images of death
and life paint a backdrop of stark contrast for Chawaf's
exploration of sexual love between a woman and a man that is
La reverie.
Bearing striking resemblance to the operation of
Chawaf's mimetic strategy, Campbell describes the workings
of creative mythology as

152
shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already
known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the
becoming thing that is no thing at all but life,
not as it will be or as it should be, as it was or
as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in
process, here and now. (8)
Conflating life "as it is," with some sort of essential Truth
is to misread creative mythologies as descriptions of
"reality" rather than performative, as "real" rather than as
constructive of a stable vision that produces the "real."
Although rooted in the here and now, the text, like life, is
also dynamic, in process. Chawaf's parodie strategy reiterates
the myth of Mother Earth, drawing from its mythical energy,
but doing so with a critical distance. Whereas the
quintessential autobiographical question for Breton was "Qui
suis-je?," in La reverie Chawaf's becomes "Qui sont-je?"
(Cixous's phrase).5 This catachrestic question mimes and
destabilizes Breton's inquiry in a literal, albeit improper,
use of language by emphasizing difference within any speaking
subject: "Who are I?" Yet the catachrestic aspect of language
remains central. In its homophony with "Qui songe?" the
question underscores the role of the dream in a subject's
becoming, and implies the dynamic potential of the future, a
future limited only by the imagination. La réverie continues
Chawaf's linguistic work of excavation begun in Retable. Yet,
whereas the first book summons a distant, impossible utopia
notably through passages where the Narrator addresses the
reader, the second uses the dream as a device to close the
distance between these two. Instead of merely describing a

153
scenario of rebirth, within the framework of revery the author
attemtps to regenerate language and the concept of the
feminine.
Like an archeologist using her imagination to
reconstruct a body from bits and pieces of matter, the
Narrator embarks on a journey attempting to reconfigure the
feminine in the here and now from remnants of the past. In
order to create a feminine symbolic, Chawaf works at the
social, cultural, and linguistic level, evoking on the one
hand the desolation of a barely identifiable maternal-
feminine, and on the other, the memory of touch, of the
proximity between mother and child remaining in the flesh
but repressed by the mind.
Why engage with the myth of the Mother Earth at all,
some feminist critics wonder, when portrayals of Woman as
Nature have served to denigrate the feminine? For one,
mythologies recount meaningful stories, those that matter to
women with a range of experiences and histories. In the
essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality," Adrienne Rich
articulates the concept of a "lesbian continuum" synonymous
with "woman-identified experience" not necessarily tied to
sexual acts, but that would include
forms of primary intensity between and among
women, including the sharing of a rich inner life,
the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and
receiving of practical and political support.
(239)
For Chawaf and other authors of écriture feminine, ancient
mythologies serve as a tool for imagining a future of sexual

154
difference that would not simply be an evolution of the
present sexual (in)difference. In periods of crisis, when
feelings of disassociation and hopelessness abound, the
quest for new versions of mythologies "restores to existence
the quality of adventure" (Campbell 7) . In a word, they
offer hope for regeneration.
Chawaf does not attempt to fix Woman as the essence of
all things, but rather to recast the myth of Her. The best
arm against myth, as Barthes argues, is to "le mythifier á
son tour . . . de produire un mythe artificiel: et ce mythe
reconstitué sera une véritable mythologie" (Mythologies
222). Chawaf's aim is to denaturalize the construction of
woman through nature as though asking, what might happen if
the model of Woman were reiterated unfaithfully? Upon first
reading La reverie. Chawaf's "femme hypergénitale" seems to
get lost amidst the metaphor and hyperbole (119). Only after
a few readings does her enormous silhouette take shape, as
the subtle incorporation of her mime into the flow of the
narrative becomes apparent. Chawaf pushes metaphors of woman
to the outer limits in order to demonstrate how easily one
can replace the other: "Ecrire c'est bien sur reécrire.
Ecrire plus complétement ce qui n'était écrit que
partiellement de la réalité" ("L'Héros, L'Héroine" 30). To
read Chawaf1s mythology as though she were positing the
essence of Woman is to miscalculate its operation. As
Barthes reminds us, "ce mouvement méme que 11 on fait pour
s1 en dégager, le voilá qui devient á son tour proie du

155
mythe" (Mythologies 222) . Any attempt to bring into writing
a fuller picture of reality will always itself be subject to
reconfiguration. Words become the substance from which
Chawaf constructs a universe, but her feminine matter
overflows and drips:
La substance-mére, le matériau informe á 11état
fondu, cette bouillie en cuisant, collait, se
grumelait, se boursouflait, se dilatait, occupait
11espace vide, conduisait á la structure d'un
univers, <>. (106)
Figured as the constitutive element of all things, Mother
Earth forms, disintegrates, and reforms in a cycle of birth,
death, and rebirth.
On the first page of La reverie the Narrator begins to
tell a bedtime story, as if to lull the reader into sweet
dreams:
II faisait beau et 1'enfant déplisserait ses
poumons hors de ma matrice pour fleurir, pour
germer. Les couches, en train de bouillir,
débordaient de la lessiveuse. (101)
Suddenly, without transition, the narrative glides into the
conditional mode, her descent into a dreamworld signaled by
the use of "déplisserait." The rapid displacement in time
and space signals that the dream has begun; instead of
guiding the vision consciously, the reader is carried along
in the narrative's wake, transported by overflowing images
like the bubbling waters of the washtub, like the abounding
flesh of mother and child;
J'aimais ce cálin qu'enrichissait le bon yoghourt
de la chair d'oú, caillée, chatouillée, la
cellulite éclatait de rire, la ou les capitons des
fossettes, entre les fanfreluches et les socquettes
piquaient la jointure des genoux comme des

156
coussinets. Les cheveux bouclaient sur cette
délicatesse,- dispersait, douce, douce, douce, dans la clarté du
jour, par son gazouillis, par ses grains de beauté
et par ses taches de rousseur, filie
d'inflorescence oü voltigeaient des freluches comme
si ma maternité, pendant la grossesse, 1'avaient
greffée sur haie d'aubépine. (101-2)
Ambiguously inside and outside the mother, the child
described here exists in two worlds simultaneously without
explanation, as does the dreamer. Sensations of touch--of
cuddling, tickling, and brushing--replace visual actions.
The mother not only revels in her child's touch, but
delights in the pleasures of the good yogurt of the flesh:
her child's and her own. Disassociating cellulite from its
negative connotations--as a physical trait women commonly
detest in themselves--Chawaf links it to pleasure, and
thereby embraces love for her own body as she affirms
herself as a woman.
As quickly as this dream-like scenario begins, the
mother and child disappear. The narrative shifts to a scene of
love-making between a man and a woman. There is no further
mention of the mother, nor of the child in what follows.
Weaving a mythical, bountiful, larger-than-life earth mother
in which man and woman revel joyously, this fragmented
narrative is at once hymn, poem, and prayer celebrating an
ethical relation of nondominance between the sexes. Addressing
her lover, the woman describes their union:
En toi, je me teñáis á 1'abri de la famine,
j'étais revigorée, et, comme 1'eau dans la terre,
je circuláis. L'engorgement oignait d'argile rouge
mon obésité et soufflait, nous transportait d'un

157
continent á 1'autre, d'un hémisphere á 1'autre,
d'un solstice á l'autre. (104)
As one metaphor rapidly replaces the other preventing
logical thought from making sense of it all, the reader
loses her bearings, swept away like the woman by her lover's
touch:
Tes mains, ton excitation, me fuselaient en
perles, en galaxies, me grossissaient de récifs,
jusqu'au ventre, au centre de la terre écumeuse de
mers et d'océans ou la lingerie me brodait les
courants, le vent, l'air, la poussiére. (104)
While at first the exuberant language play invites the
reader to interpret the novel as an idealized exploration of
sexual love between a man and a woman, the narrative frame
of life's destruction and its affirmation prepares her for a
more complex scenario. Departing from the myth of the
worship of the Great Earth Mother as a means of access to
higher self-knowledge, Chawaf depicts normative images of
the feminine on a backdrop of the quotidian.6 Woman is
associated with the four elements, and all that is a product
of nature. Substituting one descriptive signifier for
another, the imagery disrupts the effect of the nomination
"woman is..." and attacks the foundations of a fixed
conception of woman as nature, nurture, and support for man.
Although images evoke a provincial village setting, this
locus amoenus is neither fixed in time, nor named. It is
tempting to view the narrative as a simple breakdown into
two opposing worlds: masculine patriarchal aggressive and
feminine maternal nurturing. However, Chawaf uses the

158
dichotomies self-consciously. The portrayal of a society in
which the realms of the masculine and the feminine are
clearly delineated by social activity, gender roles, and the
division of labor by sex lends itself to the subversion of
these normative constructs. Exaggerated in a such a way,
they become easily identifiable.7 Through a mimetic strategy
of hyperbolic performance, Chawaf reenacts the play in
sexual union between the self and the other, masculine and
feminine, sight and touch, activity and passivity, solidity
and fluidity, pushing these categories to their "logical"
limits. Described extensively physically, the man and woman
featured in the narrative are neither assigned names, nor
specific identities. Nothing indicates with certainty that
they are the same two people throughout the course of the
story. Chawaf's fictional characters are secondary to the
hero/heroine of the narrative: language itself, what is yet
unsaid, unthinkable.
Le héros qui triomphe du désordre et de la peur de
vivre et mourir, c'est la langue . . . sa richesse
exploitable á 1'infini. ("Deux ou trois idées pour
la survie de notre héros" 26)
To play with language is to illustrate its restrictive,
conditioning nature. Unexpected arrangements of words and
sounds place demands on a reader's imagination and expands
her or his horizons as to what is thinkable. Chawaf's quest
for identity through autofiction, recounts and refigures the
fiction of Woman.
Apart from Chawaf1s extraordinary orchestration of
language, from a feminist perspective what escape does the

159
text offer? As Schutte observes, in normative heterosexual
relations a woman's role conforms to the gender constructs
of femininity, her body serving, above all, as a vessel for
reproduction. Indeed, the mother of the first few pages
engages in clichéd, feminine-marked tasks of boiling diapers
and knitting pink booties. Despite the initial scenario
corresponding to the separation of masculine and feminine
spheres, in this case reproduction serves not to perpetuate
normative relations between the sexes but to subvert them.
Significantly, the child's appearance at the beginning
remains ancillary to the telling, her presence featured only
to evoke relations of touching based on proximity,
nondomination, and reciprocal exchange. Symbolically, the
child represents the birth of a culture through écriture
féminine, a culture of a "féminin spiritualisé, non englué
dans le biologique et dans la séparation en sexes, en roles
masculin et féminin" ("Contre la fiction" 50).
In keeping with Chawaf's vision of things, the couple's
union in La reverie is unsanctioned by societal standards:
no references inform the reader of the civil status of the
sexual partners or whether they are the parents of the
child. Yet the female lover is not stigmatized as a woman of
loose morals or a prostitute. The portrait of a simple,
loving woman, whom her lover evokes as a "femme de pays,"
subverts the Madonna/whore paradigm operating in Retable
(1). For she is the good, nurturing mother whose sexual
desire then takes center stage, whereas the child remains in

160
the background: the female who makes love for pleasure. Both
poles of the Madonna/whore dichotomy are normative, each
representing the limits of the other. The whore is the other
against which the figuration of the Madonna defines itself;
the boundaries of each must remain separate in the operation
of a specular economy. What might happen, then, if the
nurturing mother were to desire?
In La reverie, the pattern of the objectification of
the feminine to the masculine gaze is reversed. As the
initiator of their encounter, the woman eyes the man with
desire: "j'apprécais déja á l'oeil, ta stature athlétique la
dureté de ton membre viril, sa circonférence" (103).
Significantly, she does not simply look at or see him but
also evaluates the male body offered to her. Desirer instead
of desired, objectifier instead of objectified, she behaves
improperly in terms of the role assigned to her as devoted
mother. Transgressing this category, the passionate mother
confounds the notion that the feminine and the masculine
each possess a proper set of characteristics not to be
duplicated in the other. The goal of her writing is to break
down the barriers that denigrate what is other, to "écrire
pour décloisonner, pour détruire les séparations entre le
corps et la langue" ("Contre la fiction" 50).
Repeatedly, Chawaf's writing approaches fetish words
and proper terms, magnifying their operation. The closer she
draws with her looking glass, the more likely they are to go
up in flames, to undergo a sensual and material

161
transformation which undermines their negative historical
connotations. As Irigaray reminds us, "ce 'style' ne
privilégie pas le regard," which is the dominant sensory
perceptual element in the specular economy (CS 76; TS 79).
Rather, it "rend toute figure á sa naissance, aussi tactile"
(CS 76; TS 79). Indeed, the mythology produced in La reverie
responds to the Narrator's call in Retable to create a
spiritualized "zone of love" in which the Earth Mother can
be "savored"--perceived by all the senses--approached,
smelled, and tasted. Chawaf's language produces images that
roll over the tongue or crunch between the teeth, that slip
through the reader's grasp and penetrate the body through
the nose, ears, and eyes. Her language displaces the primacy
of the visual; it offers a different optic, another type of
mirror (like Irigaray's speculum) capable of reflecting the
interior. As Chawaf says, she writes to "visualiser
l'interieur, ce qui echappe aux yeux" through "an autre
regard . . . plus d'intuition" ("Contre la fiction" 50).
Instead of envisioning intuition as subordinate to the ideal
of scientific observation, her practice should be read
through its etymology. The Latin intueri signifies "regarder
attentivement." Chawaf's attentive gaze produces an écriture
féminine that opens up "sur une éthique de la vie, une
éthique non autoritaire, non imposée de l'extérieur mais
issue de 1'intérieur" ("Contre la fiction" 54).
Replete with a lexicon of alimentary metaphors, mainly
of meat, milk, and bread products, La reverie nourishes a

162
language that Chawaf believes has been diminished,
conditioned by cartesian thinking:
Et la rótie était fondante, grasse, savoureuse,
corsée, langue fourrée, fleurs confites, tartes
trillées, pourlécheries, meurette, terrinée,
matefaim, ouillade, aillade, cujassou, chaudrée,
lapereau, fricandeau de mousserons, galouille,
caillebottes, corgniottes, cancoillotte, viquotte,
rigotte, pátissous, ballotines, mésuline, mogettes
rouges, berlingolettes, galetons, poupetons,
embeurrée, de choux pommés, prune, nouillettes,
brochettes d'argouane, dianes, bourride,
boutargue, béatilles, bigarade, bouillinade,
vacherin, warn, farpon, rillons, tourin, gratons,
bugne, sauciaux, citrouillet, poires pisserettes,
d'un garde-manger. (150)
The above passage typifies Chawaf's work on language,
starting from an image, expanding and exploding it through
the skillful use of color, light, and onomatopoeia. The
author retrieves obscure terms from regional pantries to
recirculate them, playfully adjusting quotidian forms,
forging neologisms, and giving birth to new forms. Like the
placental relation, the relation between sign and referent,
self and other, is constantly renegotiated. In the tradition
of Rabelais and the poets of the Pléiade, she breathes life
into language in order to resuscitate it. "Le mot idéal . .
. permet de voir, d'entendre, de humer, de toucher, de
goüter. II n'a pas seulement un sens, il a les cinq sens"
("Contre la fiction" 56). The author is less interested in
recounting a story than in making the reader feel, taste,
and touch life.
Chawaf1s hyperbolic poetic language is characterized by
distorted, over-sized object-projections similar to those
thrown up on the walls of Plato's womb-cave; they are

163
disfiguring, fluid, disorienting. For example, the woman's
lack erupts, becomes infinite, unrecognizably distorted, and
a place for the celebration of difference:
Ses bréches, ses fissures, ses fractures étaient
colmatées, le péle-méle, couples en
transformation, en débordement, les ponces, les
fumerolles, le calcaire, carapace, tripailles,
pierrailles de sima, panspermie éruptive,
t'enveloppait comme un étui, siliceuse de
durillons, de cañons, de volcans, de cirques,
d'engelures, de callosités de ravinements. (122)
The frontier between the interior and exterior, the body and
the world becomes indistinguishable. Chawaf1s female lover
incarnates the fluidity of Irigaray's lips figure that "s'y
re-touche sans jamais y constituer, s'y constituer en
quelque unité" (CS 76; TS 79). Linguistic accumulation
disrupts the narrative frame. Solid boundaries melt and
flow, cleaving signifier from signified. Such explosions of
linguistic play produce substitutions that pry the word from
the thing, deconstructing a textual universe where language
and the concept of the feminine no longer function as
medium, but stand for themselves. Chawaf's aim is to
confound the discourse produced within an auto-reflecting
economy that posits one Truth from one (masculine)
perspective. For a text of écriture féminine, simultaneity
would be "son 'propre'," touching upon identity but never
fixed "dans la possibilité d'identité á soi d'aucune forme"
(CS 76; TS 79). Open to the difference of the other,
Le romancier de la fusion n'écrit pas seul car,
médium, il est écrit par 1'autre, par les autres.
L'écriture n'est pas un acte solitaire, c'est un
acte amoureux. ("L'Héros, L'Héroine" 31)

164
This act of love is a process of demystification in
terms of the language used to represent female biological
difference. The description of the couple's love-making
incorporates a critique of the medical discourse used to
refer to woman's reproductive organs:
Et un gynécoloque accoucheur observerait des
cornes utérines riches en embryons normaux et des
corps jaúnes sur chaqué ovaire et elle était apte
á déposer du gras, grasse dans ses zones érogénes
pour la production de kilos de poids vif, de part
et d'autre de la colonne vertébrale, derriére
l'épaule, au passage des baisers, au niveau de la
derniére cóté, et á égale distance du grasset et
de 1'arriére du jambón, et l'homme la flattait de
la main et la couchait á méme la terre du massif.
(114-15)
The gynecologist's would-be observations of the female
reproductive system reveal an absurd representation of
"normal."" In a description of the lateral appendages of the
uterus described as horns, the uterus and ovaries are
depicted as a bull's head. Chawaf's "woman" is more than the
sum of her biological parts,- the visualization is
recognizably distorted by multiple "normal" embryos and by
yellow bodies on the ovaries. Under the weight of the man's
attention, his view, and his discourse, her reproductive
system ressembles a bestial terrain, the woman as a fattened
cow.
What began as a pleasure-filled encounter slides into
reification. She is reduced to cuts of meat for the
delectation of "le consommateur" (110):
A mésure que son prix s'élevait, que sa valeur
boucherie se confirmait, que tu me máchais, que je
me reconstituais, jambe, échine, faux-filet,
plate-cñte, cul, entrecote, noix de gigot,

165
cdtelette de noix, gite á la noix, gite de
derriére. (112)
The switch mid-sentence from the Narrator's perspective to
the woman's own view, one of a number of examples of style
indirect libre, signals her consciousness of the
reification. And yet, the woman accepts passively, even
contentedly, this position: "elle souriait en se prétant en
bas á la distension" (110). The mythical past alluded to at
the beginning of the text turns out to be less than ideal.
What begins as a celebration of her sexual body turns
violent and chaotic. The couple's merger begins to destroy
both the woman and the man. As if unleashing a catalyst for
her transformation, the man praises her delicate features:
Un visage plus fin, disait-il, en me respirant,
que les vaisseaux capillaires. Et m'ayant
dépoitraillée, il soupesait ma poitrine,
échevelait . . . sur la dégraisse de mon cinquiéme
quartier, sur ma croupe, entre mes deux hanches et
sur mes jambons énormes; et la páte pultacée ne
dégonflait plus, rosbif, cuisseau, cuisse,
tranches, nourrice, rumsteak, gigot de ma chair
qu'il prenait á pleines mains, beefsteak taillé
dans le filet oü il enfongait les doigts, ccfemme,
femme . . . >> disait-il. (110)
Her body becomes that of an animal, he is the butcher; she
is the wheat, the dough that he kneeds, pinches, stabs with
his fingernails, moulds, and shapes. After several
descriptions of the violence of the couple's union in which
she likens her body to that of a butchered animal, the woman
begins to perceive the value which lies in the process of
becoming conscious of her own position relative to her
lover's. The narrator insinuates that this process of

166
contemplation is required in order to release the repression
of the flesh, that is the feminine:
tu me pelotais, tu me reniflais, il fallait aller
plus bas, plus bas, avant l'Histoire, creuser,
nous prospecter, nous fouiller, progresser dans la
chair comme la racine dans le sol, tirer la
vérité, des couches les plus sombres, les plus
vulgaires, les plus animales de nous-mémes. (113)
By giving voice to "those things that belong to the
categories of wildness, regression, sickness, symptoms,"
Chawaf believes we can narrow the gap of inequality "between
affects and sensitivity on the one hand and culture and the
social on the other" that cause "division of the
living" (30) .9
Several times the woman breaks away from her lover,
abandonning him, leaving him cold and desperate. Urgently he
tries to reconnect with her by suckling her breasts like a
baby, and his temporary satisfaction satisfies both of them.
Although they believe that her body will deliver them both,
in the end she offers no substitute for his birth mother.
Distinguishing between "fusion charnelle" and "fusion
symbolique," the author identifies the first as a process by
which two beings become one ("La peur du féminin" 34-44).
Individuation becomes lost, the self melts into that of the
other, and identity is annihilated. Carnal fusion results
from the individual's desire to relive the symbiotic union
with the mother, to recapture the lost paradise "d'un autre
qui nous réfléte" before the mirror stage. Symbolic fusion
"vit le désir, mais autrement . . . dans le sens . . . d'une
éthique de la vie" ("La peur du féminin" 35). It would mark

167
the end of the fantasy of "un accouplement avec la mere
primitive" and would be the beginning of the passion that
would bring into being an Other language.
Through the process of écriture féminine, Chawaf seeks
to demystify the "frightening physical-chemical realm" of
the biological by "spiritualizing" it instead of separating
it from thought (30). In La reverie, what she describes as
the spiritualization of the female body frequently
approaches divinization. Yet the distinction between the two
appears clear. As the narrative progresses, the folly of
elevating the woman to a cosmic scale becomes apparent. The
man who kneels down in worship to the woman in hopes of
being transported "a travers la vie et la mort, vers une
destination inconnue, " in order to grasp her flesh fumbles
uselessly through layers of veils, clothes, knots, ties, and
lace:
Et tu avais envie de t'agenouiller devant cette
dame á blanche robe vestüe, devant cette vierge á
1'enfant, constellée de bijoux, couronnée de rose,
devant cette miniature vignetée par les
ondulations et par les moirures de ses cheveux
dénattés sous le voile de dentelle descendant á la
taille, devant ces bandes de dentelle blanche
posée sur transparent beige chair, devant ces
longues manches á 11ange en dentelle, devant les
effets scintillants du jeté princesse, de tulle
pailleté d'or, devant ces engageantes de dentelle,
devant ces incrustations de guipure d'irlande sur
filet, devant ces bouffants en mousseline . . .
[ . . . ]
et tes ongles d'accrochaient au brodé des
contours, aux motifs de pétales en relief, aux
arceaux, aux losanges, aux noeuds, aux double-
noeuds, aux roses, aux pavés, aux maille-
chainette, aux ajours, se perdaient dans l'entre-
croisement des fils, dans la grille de la
dentelle, dans la dentelle de Venise, dans les

168
dentelles Renaissance, dans la dentelle d'Irlande
fine. (144-45)
Chawaf1s enumeration reaches comic proportions,
demonstrating that he who idolizes woman as Madonna,
princess, or angel will become mired in the trappings of her
portrait. She writes,
. . . pour que notre langage n'hésite plus entre
un pole oú il n'est que le corps dominé par la
mére et 1'autre pole ou il n'est que 1'esprit
dominé par le pére, mais que, refusant á la fois
la fusion et la séparation, il s'ose et s'humanise
en parole vivante. ("Peur du féminin" 45)
The small quantity of dialogue in the narrative appears at
first to be the benign, if not banal, speech that occurs
between couples in the act of lovemaking:
<> disait-il (110)
elle murmurait: <>
(116)
«mon chéri, mon chéri>>, <>
(118)
On the surface a discourse of love, it is revealed to be one
of destruction. As the woman begins to resist her lover's
advances, the man's speech takes a desperate, then violent,
turn. He threatens that he cannot live without her, that he
will not live without her:
<> (108)
Tu la bousculais. Tu la battais: < promets-moi, jure-moi . . . >> < temps de . . . >> (126)
Chawaf's couple suffers from what popular psychology labels
co-dependence: an unhealthy dependance on the other, who is

169
perceived as one's savior or redeemer. The myth is
regression to a lost paradise: "le destin de l'homme et de
la femme n'est pas de régresser mais d'évoluer" ("Peur du
féminin" 35). She speaks of a cyclical evolution symbolized
by the metamorphosis of the female lover: "qu'elle naissait,
qu'elle disparaissait, qu'elle renaissait, 1'incitant á la
suivre . . . á s'y dépasser, á revivre" (128). When the
woman's eyes open to the destructive nature of their
relationship, she attempts to resist his idealization of
her. The more she opposes it, the more ardent the man
becomes in his adoration. In a final prayer to her, he begs
to her, as his Madonna, for redemption:
< Prends pitié!
Prends pitié!
Prends pitié!
Ecoute
Exauce
Prends pitié!
Prends pitié!
Guide
Nourris
Guéris
Protége
moi!
Réconcilie-moi avec la vérité!
Raméne-moi á la vérité!>> (156)
In the end, she realizes that he envisages her only as a
means to achieve some higher knowledge: "que ce n'était plus
á elle que tu t'adressais . . . qu'elle t'ouvrait un chemin"
(156-57). In La reverie. Chawaf asks the reader to question
what love is and how it might be attainable on the
individual and collective level:
Je travaille sur le sens concret, social,
psychologique, individuel et collectif qu'on peut

170
donner á ce mot: amour. Si on veut réussir á lui
donner vie et á le sortir de ses impasses, il faut
montrer que ce qu'on appelle 1'amour n'est pas
1'amour. Ce n'est pas dire que 1'amour est
impossible, loin de la. A mon avis, c'est
exactement le contraire, c'est qu'il faut
travailler á le rendre possible, il faut le mettre
au monde" ("Action du langage" 430-44).
She aims to lay the groundwork for a mythology of the body
and text that charts a territory open to what is other, a
space that encourages passage toward, not possession of, the
other: "Identifier le féminin . . . C'est sortir
physiquement de soi pour aller symboliquement á 1'autre"
("Contre la fiction" 53).
Critics describe La reverie as notably bereft of hope,
for they read the final passage of the book as a sign of the
incapacity to symbolize feminine specificity.10 Donning a
corset and a long, flowing dress that subsumes her, the
woman's body takes on the shimmering, undulations, and
iridescence of taffeta as she moves down a path. Leaning
against a wall, she becomes a silhouette, "Comme si toujours
pourtant, elle t'échapperait ..." (165). The narrative
recounts a story of the possession of a woman, but in the
end, neither the male lover nor the reader can control her,
can pin down her essence.
écrire, c'est-á-dire suivre les passages,
descendre, s'enfoncer, avancer, venir á toi, á
vous, aux choses aussi, nous rejoindre, nous unir,
nous aimer quand on nous a enlevé nos mains et nos
bouches de caresses, nos bras de baisers, quand on
nous a interdit notre peau, quand le discours
masculin et armé nous refoule, nous censure,
s'acharne á nous maitriser . . . mais pa déborde
de toutes parts et le désir ne finit pas et pa ne
doit pas finir et la langue ne finit pas et c'est
sans limites. ("De Retable á Rougeátre" 87)

171
Cornell points out that "the disruptive power of the
allegory of Woman ironically seems to depend on deferring
any attempt to specify the feminine" (170) . Chawaf refuses
to terminate the play of deferral. Describing her writing
practice, she emphasizes her aim to get as close to the body
as possible without quite touching it: "je me demande si
écrire le corps, ce n'est pas l'acte de différer le corps .
. . " ("Contre la fiction" 53). From an ethical perspective,
to posit a fixed image of the feminine would be an error, a
repetition of the self-same. The moment difference is
annihilated, Chawaf notes, all becomes "centered around the
self, around oneself. There is no longer an other" (Shifting
Scenes 23). Opting for the risk of not speaking
definitively, of not centering meaning, the author chooses
difference and indefinite deferral:
de la matiére charnelle de la mere ou nous avons á
passer á la matiére spirituelle de notre langue.
Et de ce passage, nous n'en avons jamais fini.
("Peur du féminin" 35)
True to her mimetic strategy, the author does not posit a
new version of Truth, but rather exposes this ideal and
displaces it as Ideal. Therefore, it can be said that she
deconstructs these would-be truths and ideals and thusly,
partakes of deconstructive postmodernism, as a writer and a
thinker.
As we have seen, the Narrator's quest proves to be a
double one: her search for the mother is, more importantly,
a quest to rewrite her, to reconfigure her through the

172
repetition of a past inherited from a masculine viewpoint.
Retable-la reverie does not celebrate the achievement of a
final outcome, but the process of continuing development. As
Cixous notes in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.
"Writing is not arriving; most of the time it's not
arriving. One must go on foot, with the body" (65). A
textual body is never completely accomplished, for if it
were, it would be the end of the exchange between writer and
reader, and between self and other.
Notes
1 See the discussion in the Introduction of this
dissertation, 2-4.
2 See Lacan, "Bisexualité et différence des sexes,"
Scilicet 1: 85-96.
3 See Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, Meeting at
the Crossroads (New York: Ballantine, 1992). Many critics
have written on woman's pleasure and its relation to the
specular. The seminal text on female jouissance as a
function of identification with the male gaze is Laura
Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,"
reprinted in Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan,
1989) .
4 Critics have shown that she exists largely in the
male imagination, but hardly ever in the female one. See
Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women's Writing (Austin: Univ.
Texas Press, 1983) 111-12. An exception, I would add, is the
genre of popular romance novels in which the heroine's
unquestionable beauty takes a back seat to her remarkable
intelligence or "fiery disposition," Janice A. Radway,
Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill: Univ. North Carolina
Press, 1984) 123.
5 Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (New
York: Columbia UP, 1993) . Originally published in English.
1 Barthes articulates a distinction between myth and
mythology, where the latter signifies "artificial myth," in
Mythologies (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1957).

173
7 Schutte convincely makes this point in her discussion
of nonnormative heterosexuality.
8 This critique is also noted by Hannagan in "Reading
as a Daughter," 171-91.
s Chawaf's interview in this anthology is published in
English.
10 See Bosshard, La Mise en question de la
bipolarisation: Hanagan, "Reading as a Daughter"; and
Haskell, "Woman as Lacemaker."

CONCLUSION
The markedly polarized world of mind/body,
masculine/feminine, and activity/passivity, stereotypes of
Woman, and the celebration of motherhood, combined with
Chawaf's aim to "write life," seem to reiterate
unproblematically conventional ways of thinking about gender
and genre. Nonetheless, in the study of Retable-la reverie,
we have seen that Chawaf employs a materially-charged
poetics of the body that exploits these constructs by
design. Her novel does not, in the final analysis, mirror
gender and genre norms uncritically. Rather, consistent with
the basic tenet of écriture féminine's questioning of all
established convention, she interrogates the way in which
the concept of sex is conditioned by an economy of the self¬
same. As she does so, she calls into question the
misogynistic ethic that operates in the dominant discourse.
Chapter One discusses the categories of sex and gender
in the context of Irigaray's strategy of "mimétisme" and
Butler's theory of gender performativity. Such an optic is
useful for analyzing Chawaf's écriture féminine for two
reasons. First, it situates her philosophy of sexual
difference and ethics in the historically relevant
theoretical context. In addition, Chawaf's practice of
écriture féminine has been misinterpreted, in much the same
174

175
way that Butler misreads Irigaray's mimicry. Although Butler
develops a theory of gender performativity, the matrix for
not rereading textual mimicry as an essentializing practice,
she nevertheless interprets Irigaray as idealizing woman as
the excluded "other" par excellence. Within this context, it
is understandable why Chawaf1s work has been misread.
However, from the perspective formulated by Irigaray,
Chawaf1s reiteration of the "natural" Woman can be
understood as a mimetic strategy of displacement that seeks
to expose the specular, exclusionary logic that conditions
the sex/gender dichotomy without, in turn, essentializing
Woman.
Chapter Two examines the construction of the novel,
through paratextual elements ranging from its material
borders--cover art, the title, headings--to the symbolic
figure of the womb that shapes Chawaf's écriture féminine. I
argue that Retable-la reverie breaks with the norms of
generic and gender convention in that it uses language self¬
consciously. The construction of the text draws attention to
the aesthetic and material constraints of the production of
the novel. In a similar manner, Chawaf's insistence on the
materiality of the female body paradoxically exposes the
limits of the philosophical concept of sex. In order to
create a feminist poetics of sexual difference, she plays
with the myth of Mother in complex, interesting ways: one of
these is through the figure of the pregnant womb. Her
maternal metaphor provides the symbolic representation of an

176
economy radically different from a patriarchy or its
opposite, a matriarchy. The alternative to viewing human
relations as a battle of domination and subordination, it
symbolizes the peaceful coexistence of two separate but
mutually dependent subjects.
The close reading of Retable-la reverie's paratextual
elements and narrative demonstrates how the mythology of
Woman is reiterated but also subverted. Chawaf repeats the
polarized view of woman as either Madonna or whore in order
to reveal how both images conceptualize the flesh--feminine
matter--in only one way: as illicit. These archetypes
reflect a myopic, singular vision of Woman that in fact
prohibits her sexual desire.
Chapter Three describes the representation of the
female body in Retable as mechanical, passive, and reactive.
Ghyslaine feels deeply the social inhibitions, confinement,
and objectification of her body. Without the adequate
representation of her birth mother, a figure with whom the
protagonist can identify, the experience of living leaves
her lost, wandering, hopeless, and suicidal. The narrative
is fragmented, characterized by a sort of automatic writing
whose choppy, mechanical aspects are evident in lists of
words without commas—a use of language that Chawaf would
describe as without breath and without life. Facing what
seem to be insurmountable obstacles, Ghyslaine is plagued by
fear, symbolic blindness, and discouragement when she
attempts, in her stance as an adult author, to write

177
"otherwise."
For Chawaf, écriture féminine serves a double,
simultaneous function: to unlock the past and envision a
different future, a future of sexual difference not
programmed in advance. La Reverie's exposition of erotic
love begins by describing a pregnant mother's pleasure at
the fullness of the womb; she does not experience her flesh
as alienating. This sets the stage for scenes of love-making
between a woman and a man in which the female lover neither
defines herself in terms of the couple, nor in terms of her
offspring, but as a necessary participant in a relation of
reciprocity. In a sense, La R§verie can be seen as an
imaginative performance of sexual reborderization that is,
linguistically, constantly renegotiated. Yet, as the
narrative progresses, the couple's encounters turn violent;
violence is played out on/in the woman's body. Chawaf has
been faulted for what critics see as her female characters'
failure to escape stereotypes of passivity. I argue,
however, that the tension in Retable-la réverie raises
important questions about female desire, in theory and in
practice. La Reverie recounts a situation in which many
women find themselves: the difficulty of living feminist
ideals that seem evident from a philosophical standpoint.
How does a woman reconcile ethical beliefs that dictate what
she should want with the lived experience of her desires--
regardless of the extent to which they are socially
conditioned?

178
Chawaf, like Irigaray, embraces an ethics of sexual
difference that is controversial. In my opinion, the most
powerful and innovative aspect of Chawaf' s work is that it
demonstrates the extent to which the concept of the body, in
particular the maternal body, needs to be rethought. On the
basis that the institution of motherhood often operates in
the service of patriarchy, Beauvoir viewed the functions of
menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation, in general, as
alienating forces. Exposing ways in which material
differences perpetuate sexual inequality, she developed a
framework for splitting gender from sex as a means to
differentiate the cultural from the biological. Her
distinction between these two poles has been a major
contribution to feminist thinking. However, Chawaf,
Irigaray, and other writers of écriture féminine take issue
with the possibility of the existence of a sexually neutral
subject. Since material differences between the sexes have
been used in the service of women's oppression, the
discourse reiterating these differences should be
interrogated on its own terms. In Je. Tu. Nous. Irigaray
points to the importance of engaging the question of
biological differences:
refuser aujourd'hui toute explication de type
biologique--parce que la biologie a paradoxalement
servi á 11 exploitation des femmes--, c'est se
refuser la cié de 1'interprétation de cette
exploitation. (52)
Chawaf, like Irigaray, takes up the question of sexual
difference, but as my argument suggests, her mimetic

179
strategy works within, yet against, an essentialist
definition of Woman. The representations of women in Retable
critically reflect the exclusion of the maternal-feminine
within the dominant discourse.
In Irigaray's view, the idea of a neutral subject is an
illusion; the attempt to eradicate individual differences
has historically led to the most heinous types of violence.
She rejects the notion that identity-based politics should
work towards liberation by demanding equality, since that
ideal assumes the possibility of a neutral subject in a
world of difference. Furthermore, a stance for equality
implies the demand for absolute recognition that will not
tolerate deviation from the Ideal. Where would this leave
individuals who differ from the norm? Instead, Irigaray
argues for a new concept of the subject, one not identified
or constituted through violence or domination. To relinquish
the pursuit of equality does not mean to give up the demand
for reciprocity; a generous subject who forgoes reciprocity
subjects herself to victimization. Retable--La reverie
explores the possibilities, and difficulties, of refiguring
identity formation within an Other framework: that of a
placental economy of relations. In such an economy, a mutual
recognition of the other as Other--without threatening the
self's integrity--is required so that the self and the other
can live, and thrive, within close proximity to each other.
It does not posit a fixed concept of either the self or
other, but emphasizes the necessity of an indefinite

180
negotiation of both. Chawaf1s womb figure as a symbolization
of the placental function, displaces idea that the relation
between self and other must operate from the oppositions of
dominance and subordination.
From a philosophical standpoint, what are the
consequences of entertaining the idea that the concept of
sex, as we currently conceive of it, may not be, and may not
be desirable as, a solid ground of identity? This position
requires a risk: that we reconsider the values attributed as
"natural" to the female sex, be they judged negatively or
positively. The idea of woman's natural possession of
generosity, for example, may serve to exclude men and
ultimately subject women to an economy of exchange without
the possibility of spontaneous reciprocity since, according
to this paradigm, men would be incapable of "true"
generosity. In order to break the cycle of domination and
subordination inherent in either/or logic, a different
economy must be visualized through metaphors such as
Chawaf's womb figure. Her womb writing provides an image
that envisions an economy of difference based on mutual
recognition and reciprocity--instead of exclusion.
One limitation of this study is that draws support for
what I call Chawaf's mimetic strategy from only one of her
novels. I believe that the complexity of her first and most
well-known text warrants a close reading. Nonetheless, the
theoretical optic employed to reread Retable-la reverie
offers possibilities for reinterpreting a number of her

181
other works. Several novels feature polarized worlds of the
masculine and feminine, and have been interpreted as
essentialist, separatist, and naively utopian. Blé de
Semences. L'Intérieur des heures. Rouaeátre. and Vers la
lumiere can prove to be fertile ground for a study of
Chawaf1s mimetic strategy in that they explore the
construction of femininity in unique ways. Also, of
particular interest would be an analysis of the hyperbolic
construction of masculinity in Blé de semences.
Although the examination of the paratextual elements in
Chapter Two opens a discussion about the constraints under
which an author must work, from both an aesthetic and sexual
standpoint, it is only a point of departure. It would be of
interest to extend the study of the paratext in order to
explore, from a materialist perspective, the history of the
production of the écriture féminine novel and the
development of the publishing house Des Femmes.
As early as 1974 with the publication of Retable-la
reverie. Chawaf was raising some of the major questions of
identity politics and representation currently being
explored. The recognition of the other as Other (not as a
counterpart to the self) remains a concern relevant for
Chawaf twenty-five years later. In a recent interview
regarding her latest novel, Le Manteau noir. she continues
to wonder how it might be possible to fight against a world
of violence:
Comment lutter contre ce qui n'a pas cessé de
lutter contre la vie, et qui simplifie de plus en

182
plus dans cette lutte déstructrice contre la vie?
Comment lutter? Sans avoir recours aux mémes
armes, au méme langage, comment?1
Chawaf's claim to write life can be understood in the
context of her mimetic strategy: a process by which she
appropriates the logic of the dominant discourse, using its
own tools against it. Her écriture féminine undermines
traditional gender and genre norms, as well as the values
that sustain them. Furthermore, it does so within, yet
against, the limits imposed on écriture féminine itself in
order to expose and expand the boundaries of this avant-
garde writing practice. Both linguistically and
thematically, Chawaf1s écriture féminine exploits the
performative power of language: its generative qualities
that continuously give birth to new forms.
Notes
1 Chawaf made these remarks to me in an unpublished
interview in June, 1997.

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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
Elizabeth Droppleman was born in Havre de Grace,
Maryland. She received a B.S. in Communications from the
University of Tennessee and a B.A. in French Literature from
Georgia State University. After a two-year stay in Paris
during which she completed coursework for an M.A. at New
York University in France, she began doctoral work at the
University of Florida. In addition to French Studies, she
specializes in Gender Studies and Second Language
Acquisition. The Rotary International Foundation awarded her
an Ambassadorial Scholarship for the academic year 1999-2000
to pursue research in France and to serve as a cultural
liaison between France and the United States.
195

I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
William C. Calin, Chairman
Graduate Research Professor of
Romance Languages and Literatures
I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Gayle/ Zaohi
Assistant
/Languagi
fofessor of Romance
and Literatures
I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
7h •
Ofelia M.Schutte
Professor of Philosophy
I certify that I have read this study and that in my
opinion it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly
presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Johri P. Leavéy, Jr.
Professor of English

This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty
of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures in
the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and to the Graduate
Schooland was accepted as partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
May 1999
Dean, Graduate School

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1789
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
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