Introduction and Virginia + Colette | Issue 11
by Gail Scott | from Permanent Revolution
Excerpt from Permanent Revolution
I love the immediacy of the essay form, its way of intersecting with the period in which it is written. These essays from Spaces Like Stairs  accompanied the writing of Heroine + Main Brides, my two most feminist novels. They resonate with a decade of remarkable flowering of feminism in Québec, a decade when the ethical function of the text was underscored in a writing practice greatly concerned with deciphering the effects of social constructs in language, especially for women. The decoding naturally left gaps in awareness. Going back to the essays, I felt a little naked. The essay, perhaps even more than fiction, shows up this youthful person radiant with hope + intractable enthusiasm. But one also pocked with her + the era’s inadequacies.
Commendably, in times of continual contestation [in that sense, a time rather like now], a written text or commentary, no matter how literary, seems able to function as political intervention. Walking past the lineup of far-left groups, Maoists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, waving their newspapers in the Hall of the old UQAM building on rue de la Gauchetière, even the academy seemed breachable. At gatherings of poets, men + women around a long table, poetry’s relation to politics was debated for hours. There were also meetings with feminist activists from neighbourhood + other milieus. I recall a journalist from a feminist periodical dubbing my careful intervention on fiction/theory “nothing new.” I laughed! Ex-journalist that I was, I eschewed the sensational, that hook of the daily news, in favour of plumbing the language of received ideas. She likely laughed, too. There was nothing devastating about a good debate.
What is most progressive about these essays, I believe, is that they are not unalloyed individual performance; they come from a collective search for knowledge. It has been said that our 6-member Théorie, un dimanche  group, gathering regularly over several years to share texts on the relationship of feminist struggle to the written word, was germinal in North American feminist letters. Our intense concern as women with how we were represented in society, + in literature, allowed insights that would have been met with indifference, or even scorn, in broader contestatory contexts. We could listen to each other with utter respect; treat each other’s writing with gravitas, as work of importance; pursue deeply focused investigations that liberated us from, among other things, an overdetermined deference to the authority of critical milieus + the academy.
In revising the essays for current publication, I have tried to remain consistent with the person I was then. But what to do with gaffes, unconscionable in hindsight? A militant tendency to sometimes speak in binaries has thus herein occasionally been revised or excised. As has an account, in “A Feminist at the Carnival,” of crying at age 17 all the way through the grievously racializing film Gone with the Wind. Most probably about the love affair. I have taken out the reference, but with some hesitation: if one is to construct whiteness, ought one not openly acknowledge, rather than burying the evidence, the cruelty of the culture from which one has profited?
But mostly, the time of writing this work was a marvellous time of learning that language, lovingly, consciously used, word by word, within the space of a context, is a continuously shifting poetic project with everyday implications. Hopefully, something about these struggles for more democratic approaches to living in a community of sentences is modestly useful as we continually attempt to widen our grasp of what it means to be a fully present integral person in the broader body politic.
These selected + somewhat revisited essays from the Women’s Press 1989 publication of Spaces Like Stairs appeared in turbulent times in feminist circles. I deeply appreciate Marlene Kadar’s vision + editing, + the work of Rona Moreau + her Women’s Press colleagues for making this publication possible.
 The group was comprised of Nicole Brossard, Louky Bersianik, Louise Dupré, Louise Cotnoir, France Théoret, and myself.
VIRGINIA + COLETTE
To be a minority Anglophone in a largely French milieu in 1980s Canada surely threw more light on my own culture than on the culture of the other. In so doing, it nurtured a writer’s most important task: to be a critic of one’s own culture. A happy corollary: my very notion of fiction was to be transformed by the fact that my writing context happened to be distanced from the somewhat more realist fiction traditions of many English-Canadian women writers of the era. A crucial moment of that early writing education was meeting France Théoret. Our soon-intense writing relationship was abetted by shared feminism; it flourished despite the mutually antagonistic rapport that existed between our respective national cultures, in the years between the 2 independence referendums (1980/1995). When our gaze fixed on each other’s culture, it often brought about amusing inversals. For example, as we grew closer, I playfully projected on her the qualities of the Euro-French Colette, a writer whom I admired far more than she did. And sometimes, I took on for her what she called the “reassuring asceticism” of Virginia Woolf. We knew these projections were absurd, but they were a way of getting behind the masks of the ethnic reticence that was an old story in both our cultures.
It never ceases to amaze how a concept often bears within itself its own contradiction. Example: the word ‘revolution.’ The 70s revolution in Poland was Catholic in part, limiting the debate on women’s issues, among others, thus falling short of radical change. Marxism in its social + political manifestations has meant in several countries the right to eat versus the freedom to speak. The circus side of the Nazi phenomenon has been described as a need for ritual, pomp, ceremony, even a longing for the rites of partially suppressed Catholicism, breaking through the bland, repressive surface of German Protestantism. To be, say, Anglo or Franco as far as mother tongue contains, at its core, an attraction-repulsion attitude toward the other that is both at the root of bias + of certain grandes passions. The other is what we lack—or fear we lack—in self.
For women, the masculine other may be perceived as a way out of that self, amputated, refused in patriarchy; that self struggling to be a social equal. We know ‘self ’ is something beyond the mirror image of what is played back to us as ‘feminine.’ But ways + means of overcoming the limits of the image can feel dangerous, because of the temptation to self-dislike, as we reject the image we see in the mirror in favour of something hopeful that stands behind it. In a gesture of transference, perhaps, I see my friend France, who hails from my immediate experience of Other, as cultural opposite. Better posture, better dress; that je ne sais quoi attributed to French women by folks of other cultures. I know I am bartering with illusion. But I must have that illusion to represent some lack I feel in myself.
France-Colette. Our meeting was prepared a long time in advance. We had grown up in the shadow of each other’s culture, seduced by what we saw from afar. The discoveries we made in the process of growing closer [we met shortly after the 1976 victory of the Parti Québécois] were as much discoveries about ourselves as discoveries about the other. The confrontation of our respective versions of feminism facilitated the unmaking of respective mythologies with which we were each shouldered as female children growing up in the 50s. If we exist anywhere, said France, it must be as women of our generation. What we had in common was the social dichotomy of two women straddling a transitional epoch: Rock ’n’ roll interspersed with early line-dance music was on our Saturday-night playlist. France, in a lower Laurentian town where her father had purchased a small hotel after selling the dépanneur [corner store] in St-Henri. I, in a town between Cornwall + Ottawa, where my father moved us to get away from the Air Force base.
Happiness, said Colette, is merely a matter of changing troubles. Slightly modified, the definition could be applied to the revolving door of the identitary question. Life, like literature, is a matter of plagiarizing + cutting up. What is significant is what we choose to hear. What I hear in Colette that aids + abets me in my feminist desire to ‘subvert’ a devout Protestant education. That asceticism that France hears in the English Virginia. What France + I heard during the late 70s in each other’s utterances, in each other’s texts, in each other’s approach to feminism. What we have heard that may have altered our relationship to the question of writing.
I wonder if men listen the way we have done? Colette called listening the vice that ruins the face. Our pores always open, for we were used to wanting to please others, one of the first lessons little girls learn. The beginning of l’excentrement du je, the decentring of self, contiguous with the repression of the little girl’s libido. Her daring. Her complex desires. C’est au fond, en petit homme, que la fillette aime sa mere,  wrote psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray. But the little ‘man’ or little being may not have the conditions to grow up as one who exists as herself, for herself.
The product of such an education cannot but have a chancy relationship to the notion of Citizen, regardless of the language in which it is mediated. A certain cynicism starts lurking behind the face constantly striving to adapt to the reflection of itself it sees in the eye of the other. An oversensitive girl, a child of settler culture, may be acutely, if imprecisely, aware of the image she + her kind project in the eyes of an Indigenous person, for example. With what certainty she can perceive the ugliness of her own greedy ‘civilization.’ But what happens next? It is perhaps no accident that 2 of the white women writers most admired by Western culture [in the 1980s] grew up in white colonial circumstances: Doris Lessing + Marguerite Duras. With sensitivities that perhaps worked in both anti-imperialist + flawed perceptual ways.
Nothing gives more assurance than a mask. Colette one more time. Without doubt, to adopt the posture of the writer is dangerously close to wearing a mask, to adapt early on to an image initially defined by the institutions of patriarchy. Great writer role models being still to some extent majority male. Yet the circumstances of our everyday lives make it difficult to say with the ease of a Claude Beausoleil: Pour moi, la neige, à la limite, est plus abstraite que le texte [For me, snow is ultimately more abstract than text]. Our relationship to language, to literature, where tastes + standards are set by dominant culture, is entangled with the million little details of everyday life as ‘wife,’ ‘lover,’ ‘mother.’ Finding the 2-year-old’s mittens, for example, gives snow a palpable edge.
To live + breathe literature, one must apparently be able to remain au-dessus de la mêlée—yet, ivory-tower solitude by no means implies that men through history have lived alone. A difficult life, James Joyce’s, did not—despite family illness, terrible financial problems, etc.—spoil the writing. Even now, for a woman, demanding the conditions that would permit a fervent, never-ceasing relationship to l’écriture conjures up the image of the crochety eccentric, she who refuses the many small labours necessary for seduction, for the nurturing of other humans. Lesbians, through the sharing of nurturing, avoid this dilemma to some extent—which may explain why a good portion of the 20th century’s best writing by women is by lesbians. This has not greatly enhanced society’s attitudes toward women who love women.
Our discussion about how the conditions of women’s lives might impact on formal issues in writing began in Québec in the mid-70s with the appearance of the feminist periodical Les Têtes de pioche. The air was afire with ideas, ideas that corresponded to my own struggles with writing. I was convinced, for example, that relative linear movement of plot did not correspond to the way we think, talk, live. I was looking for a relationship between my need to ‘explode’ language, syntax, in line with what I perceived as my fractured female being. I was also fascinated by how desire circulated through the masks that my women friends + I seemed to adopt in our various roles: mother, writer, militant, lover, friend. This seemed to preclude the development of unary 96 permanent revolution female characters in prose, + consequently, of plot in any conventional sense. I was intrigued by Luce Irigaray’s circular vision of things in her book Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un. The desire of women, she contended, does not speak the same language as that of men, but it has been covered over by male logic since the Greeks. Later this idea became, more clearly, writing across the absence that Nicole Brossard had already prophetically called Le centre blanc.
No surprise, then, that the emphasis on language + its rapport with feminist struggle was at the core of the nurturing literary relationship between France Théoret + me. If the recurring question for us was how we stood as women vis-à-vis culture in a patriarchal society, I had a contingent question: how was this stance coloured by our respective English- + French-language [+ Protestant + Catholic] backgrounds? In her famous essay on women’s writing, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous talks of female-sexed texts: There is not that…scission, she says of women’s writing, made by the common man between the logic of oral speech and the logic of the text, bound as he is by his antiquated relation…to mastery. From which proceeds the lip-service which engages only the tiniest pan of the body, plus the mask.
Reading Cixous’s essay was one of several factors in that heady period that dissolved any desire I had to attempt writing fiction in the usual form. Yet…yet…there was also the thorny problem that the feminine figure that emerged from Cixous’s pages, passionately throwing her body into her speech when, for example, she addressed a public meeting, was not a fungible figure in my AngloProtestant education. To what extent was I different from her? Should I try to put a value judgment on that difference? Was I culturally more alienated from my physical female self than she? And what did it mean in terms of my writing? France + I began talking in earnest, often later regretting that we had failed to record our discussions. For we had embarked on a process of lifting masks, of shifting the images of self + other that were photo clichés of our respective pasts.
My first meeting with France was in a rue St-Denis café, her beret at a cocky angle, her smile friendly as she pushed her poems across the table. I was already projecting on her my image of Colette: a presence, an intelligence, both sensual + cerebral. At the same time France was probably projecting on me what she called the ‘reassuring asceticism’ of Virginia Woolf. But even as we reproduced in conversation our stereotypical sense of other, we mocked it. There began that strange game of mirrors, where what we thought we saw in the other was often what was trying to emerge in ourselves.
One of the notions I carry in my head of what it means to be Anglo in Québec is something akin to the Salvation Army, rigid + faintly ridiculous. Where does it come from? No doubt partly from my childhood: those endless Sunday afternoons, when Mother, who was religious, took a dim view of any Sunday activity that might be fun. I sat on the verandah watching the French kids across the street—with their dog Bijou, their elder sister in her high heels + makeup, their music, their laughing—watch me. Already I was aware of standing outside not only the other but also the image of self projected by the other. At the same time, I was not the figure of the young girl represented by the conventions of my own culture. France, too, who frowned at my fondness for Catholic rite, stood in a similar relationship to her culture. The feast is hypocrisy, she said, the better to mask the moralism.
For me, the masks of self + other represented by Franco + Anglo quickly gave way to that of the ideological heritage of growing up Catholic or Protestant. But admittedly, clearing that first small hurdle of nation was in itself no small matter. Not only was the weight of our respective national histories with us, but also our childhood memories of Eastern Ontario + Québec, late 50s. In the half-French village where I grew up from the age of 8, the English spoke of “the French” with disparagement, forcing on them such humiliations as the refusal of Frenchlanguage high schools. Thus, the French students, unable to cope in a second language, often ended their schooling after Grade 9. For France, there was the Montréal convent where small Catholic girls were warned of the dire consequences of entering a Protestant household. I’m sure the barrier of nation was harder for France to hurdle than it was for me. She was part of a culture that was boiling with anger. But two factors, I think, made it easier: first, the 1976 victory of the indépendantiste Parti Québécois, an important step in reclaiming national pride, + second, the intensity of our feminism, which made us impatient to understand our past, the better to break with it.
Religion: How it, through its sometimes sly input into culture’s dominant discourses, framed each of us. I remember a discussion we had about Michel Tremblay’s novel Thérèse et Pierrette á l’école des Saints-Anges. My feminism bristled at the monstrous picture Tremblay paints of the nuns. In it I saw just one more misogynist plot to put down women in Québec who had gained any access to the professions. Perhaps the rebel in me enjoyed challenging the anti-Catholic image of the sisters as punitive birds with which I was raised in our Protestant household. Where a paper pinned on the kitchen wall promised that 10 black marks for bad behaviour would mean being sent to a convent. France protests at my objections to Tremblay: But the nuns were like that, she says.
Still, talking to France, I insisted on the lack of female figures in Protestant iconography. Did the culmination of a long process of symbolic disembodiment of women—their erasure as symbolic body/politic incarnating another vision of life—impact social values? I became overwhelmed with the idea that English, that great language of Protestantism, had hidden, under its apparently relatively ‘fair’ surface, a sexism greater than any of us knew. [Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, writing in 1905, almost proudly affirms: …there is one expression that continually comes to my mind whenever I think of the English language and compare it with others: it seems to me positively and expressly masculine, it is the language of a grown-up man and has very little childish or feminine about it.] 
Could I write, then, without questioning the very matter with which I worked? As a prose writer, what would writing that was also a questioning of words + sentences in relation to each other do to the shape of a story or novel? What would it do to the reader who would have to circle back, to become involved in the process of struggling through a text, in order to work her way into some new kind of reading experience?
Which brings me back to the question of ‘female-sexed’ texts….French writer Philippe Sollers: Je dirais que la reine Victoria, en chemin de fer, en train de lire un roman du XIXe siècle, c’est l’image parfaite du point zéro aù peut en arriver la littérature. Il y à la une période d’anesthésie….
It is almost a truism to say that feminist writers everywhere have struggled to express a real that has been muted with bromides tailored to the needs of a society where the phallus is signifiant. But whether there would be, in English Canada, the kind of energetic fusion between feminism + formal experiment that characterized Québec women’s writing of the late 70s/80s remained to be seen. That language was a political issue per se in Québec was fuelled for me by the Québécois feminists I knew. In addition, we were all inspired by the language-focussed issues raised by post-May 68 writers [Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, etc.] Also, in Québec, since the beginning of the modern nationalist movement, formally experimental writers such as Hubert Aquin have been a huge point of political/cultural reference.
Still, we’ve heard a call for female-sexed texts + something deep in us responds—though not without doubts. Maybe the call does not quite respond to needs felt by we who write in English. We have to find our own solutions—+ debunk our own myths. What we can learn from French-speaking feminist writers is an insistence on asserting with confidence that the feminine exsts as something culturally positive, potentially.
And what does all this have to do with the writing of prose? Plenty, I think. I see the leaves rushing along an autumnal St-Denis sidewalk. France, waiting for me in a café for what we called one of nos dimanches durassiens. The café feels very ‘contemporary’: nostalgic old-Québec decor + a certain drug trade in the washrooms. We talk of l’écriture, rarely of the novel or short story, or the poem. A fire crackles in the fireplace. Around us are couples, children, artists. Perhaps I notice especially the women with their bright colours, their well-groomed hair, because in our heads ring the voices, the words of other women writers. In this period where I’m reading almost nothing but women, mostly in French, + most of whom are forerunners of or bright lights of la modernité: Duras, Kristeva, Stein, Wittig, Brossard, Cixous, Emma Santos, Sophie Podolski [both dead, young, of suicide], Bersianik. All of them confirm what we already feel—that to express the shape of our desire, our prose must lean toward poetry [old Virginia had predicted this decades ago]. And poetry may no longer look like a poem on the page. They also confirm our doubts about sentences + the relation of subject to verb. We’re listening hard to each other + scraps of our conversations end up in each other’s writing. This text, for example. Or her novel, Nous parlerons comme on écrit. Or my novel Heroine. One of the things we have learned in our quest is that, having for so long existed as a fiction in patriarchy, writing our own stories now is often, at least in part, a biographical process. My prose writing takes on a spiral-like movement, linked in space + time to the work of other women in Québec + elsewhere. It IS + is more exalted because it’s part of a community.
This is not to deny my respect for Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës. Nor for 20th century Canadian novelists like Margaret Laurence, Sheila Watson. But we are not only women living at the end of the 20th century, we are also women who— thanks to the struggles of the last several decades—are hearing ourselves in ways not heard before. Unfortunately, before being able to publish our new work expressing our subject-in-process, we have to shout down the precedents. Two of the most ‘modern’ of the American pre-war women writers, Gertrude Stein + Djuna Barnes, wrote out of Paris. Perhaps, still, for women writing in English, dealing with English literature is like dealing with English law. The precedents come back to haunt you. The critics remind you that the English novel in its present form was to a great extent shaped by the writing of women. So what’s all the fuss? No use looking to the left for support either. Because if you fool around with the meat + potatoes of syntax + form, you have failed to take a turn to the working class, who think, we are led to believe, like white, middle-class males.
So, the process of knocking the written word into some new shape better suited to our use goes on, it seems, with increasing insistence. A community is being formed, cutting across cultures + resistances. I know my relationship with France + other Québécois women writers opened me early to work not on the whole available in English. It also led me to a new vision of my own culture, inasmuch as I could study that culture reflected in the eyes of the cultural other. Regardless of the language we speak, the culture we live in, we proceed with the double sense of both belonging + being excluded.
Introduction revised, 2020
 Colette, Earthly Paradise (selected extracts), ed. Robert Phelps (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1974).
 Luce Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1977).
 Colette, Earthly Paradise: 132.
 Claude Beausoleil, unedited text, March 1981. 155 Notes
 Nicole Brossard, Le centre blanc (Montréal: Les Éditions d’Orphée, 1970). My reading here of this piece is coloured by readings of later Brossard work. It was in about 1973 that Brossard started insisting on the specifically feminine in the act of writing.
 Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen, in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks & Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken, 1981).
 Michel Tremblay, Thérèse et Pierrette a l’école des Saints-Anges (Montréal: Leméac, 1980).
 Author’s insertion, added 1988. Jespersen’s Growth and Structure of the English Language (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), can be read as the historical account of the growing sharpening and efficacy of English, at the expense, in part, of the feminine, until grammar, lexicon, and “words and turns that are found, and words and turns that are not found” combine to give English its masculine clarity.
 Philippe Sollers, Vision à New York (Paris: Grasset, 1981).
 France Théoret, Nous parlerons comme on écrit (Montréal: Les Herbes Rouges, 1982).
 This essay was also anthologized in A Mazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing, ed. Shirley Neuman and Smaro Kamboureli (Edmonton: Longspoon/Newest, 1986).
Ⓒ 2021 by Gail Scott Used with permission of Book*hug Press.
Gail Scott is the author of Spare Parts (1981), Heroine (1987; finalist for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction; re-issued in 2019 with an introduction by Eileen Myles), Main Brides (1993; finalist for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction), My Paris (1999), Spare Parts Plus Two (2002), and The Obituary (2010; shortlisted for Le Grand Prix du livre de Montreal). Her essays are collected in Spaces Like Stairs (1989) and in La Théorie, un dimanche (1988) which was translated into English as Theory, A Sunday (2013). Scott is co-editor of the New Narrative anthology: Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (2004; shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award for Nonfiction Anthologies). Her translation of Michael Delisle’s Le désarroi du matelot was shortlisted for a 2001 Governor General’s Literary Award. A memoir, based in Lower Manhattan during the early Obama years, is forthcoming. Scott lives in Montréal.
Permanent Revolution | Gail Scott | Book*hug Press | 2021
“A writer may do as she pleases with her epoch. Rage accumulates.”
From iconic feminist writer Gail Scott comes Permanent Revolution, a collection of new essays gathered alongside a recreation of her groundbreaking text, Spaces Like Stairs. In conversation with other writers working in queer/feminist avant-garde trajectories, including l’écriture-au-féminin in Québec and continental New Narrative, these essays provide an evolutionary snapshot of Scott’s ongoing prose experiment that hinges the matter of writing to ongoing social upheaval. Scott herself points to the heart of this book, writing, “Where there is no emergency, there is likely no real experiment.”
With a Foreword by Zoe Whittall and an Afterword by Margaret Christakos.
Praise for Permanent Revolution:
“At once erudite and intimate, Permanent Revolution is a vital set of meditations on difficulty and feminist art. Gail Scott convincingly and beautifully evokes feminism as an ongoing experimental practice: courageous, expansive, and necessary to all.” —Anne Boyer, author of The Undying, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.
Buy book here.
Issue #11 of Send My Love to Anyone
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