The Genderless Mystique: On Anne Garréta’s Enigmatic "Sphinx"
Originally published in France in 1986, Anne Garréta’s debut novel has earned an international reputation that now far precedes it. Thus, if you know about Sphinx, then like as not you are aware of its central conceit. And, in turn, if you know about the novel’s central conceit, then you probably also know that its author is a member of Oulipo — that is, l’ouvroir de littérature potentielle, the French experimental “workshop for potential literature,” which is comprised of writers who use various constraints as methods for composition.
The best-known Oulipian is, of course, Georges Perec, who composed his 1969 work La Disposition entirely without the letter E. In his introduction to the English translation of Sphinx, fellow Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker tells of one notable French critic, René-Marill Albérès, who, failing to observe the enormously difficult constraint under which Perec labored, gave La Disposition a tepid review. As if to prevent the reader of Sphinx from missing the point, Becker warns against the danger of “reading an Oulipian novel without knowing the precise way in which it is Oulipian.” Yet Becker also refuses to reveal Garréta’s compositional secret, enjoining any potential readers who remain ignorant of the novel’s conceit to “do everything in your power to stay ignorant for a while longer.” In yet another reversal, Becker insists that even if you know the novel’s conceit, it will in no way uncloud the work’s essential mystery.
Becker’s introduction proves as intriguing as it does confusing; the reader is left not quite sure about what to make of knowing (or of not knowing) what makes Sphinx Oulipian. (This conundrum is made yet more difficult when we recognize that Garréta’s novel came out some fifteen years before she joined Oulipo’s ranks.) Becker’s tactic is, I think, both devious and brilliant. For it means that readers must consider for themselves how much meaning can and should be derived from the process that engendered the novel.
Even so, I don’t think that knowing Garréta’s conceit prevents readers from questioning the extent to which that conceit is or is not constitutive of the novel’s meaning. And in any case, the novel’s linguistic constraint is evident from the first page, and thus revealing it isn’t exactly a spoiler. So, if you don’t already know the conceit of Sphinx, I’m going to tell it to you now: Garréta wrote the entire book without revealing the gender of either the narrator or the narrator’s love interest, known solely as A***. Those who are familiar with the French language and its ubiquitous forms of grammatical gender agreement will immediately understand the enormous difficulty of this constraint. (Though the challenges in English are different, they are also very imposing, and the novel’s skillful translator, Emma Ramadan, has done a brilliant job navigating them.)
Yet for a novel premised on the constraint of genderlessness, the aura that surrounds Sphinx is, paradoxically, focused exclusively on gender. A cover blurb from Lauren Elkin of Bookforum articulates this paradox, insisting that, “Just as the novel is genderless, it is also genderfull.” The cover art further confirms the paradox, at once presenting a color palette that invokes the normative male/female gender binary, and yet offering an enigmatic, abstract image in which colored geometric forms shade into one another, suggesting a continuum that evades the strictness of forms.
Perhaps even stranger than the book cover’s insistence on a gendered frame of reading, and indeed more threatening to my own reading of Sphinx, was the experience I had simply acquiring a copy of the novel. I went down to my local independent bookseller, like I always do, and proceeded directly to the “Fiction & Literature” section. To my surprise, despite the online catalog confirming six copies in the store, the volume was nowhere to be found; only a couple copies of another of Garréta’s works recently translated into English, Not One Day. I went to an in-store console to confirm that I hadn’t been imagining things, and I found that Sphinx had been shelved elsewhere. Perplexed, I climbed to the store’s second floor and navigated my way to the far, out-of-the-way corner that housed the “Lesbian Fiction” section. And there, nestled among an assortment of lesbian erotica and other “niche” fiction, was Garréta’s supposedly genderless masterpiece.
How had the novel ended up here, of all places? Was it based on an assumption about the author’s — or her characters’ — sexuality? Did the back-cover blurb’s categorization of Sphinx as a classic of “LGBT/queer literature” contribute to this shelving decision? Likely both.
But, as Sarah Coolidge reminds us in her review of the novel for Zyzzyva, Garréta’s labor in Sphinx is not in service of negating gender as such; the novel thus is by no means “genderless.” Nor is Sphinx exactly “queer” in the narrow sense of sexuality. Instead, Coolidge writes, “What Garréta achieves is a masterful and deliberate failure to specify. . . . By refusing to pin down the two lovers’ genders, she opens up the apophatic nature of language, while forcing the reader to confront his or her own discomfort upon facing an abyss of uncertainty.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. In gesturing to the “apophatic nature of language” and the uncertainty it provokes, Coolidge points to what for me at least is the far more resonant aspect of Garréta’s novel. Indeed, what’s easy to miss in the excitement about the author's gender-related constraint are the novel’s philosophical undercurrents, and these undercurrents emerge not from foregrounding an absence of gender but from deemphasizing gender’s otherwise insurmountable presence. Thus, gender is never absent from Garréta’s novel; rather, its presence is held in suspension.
What does this suspension mean from a gender-studies perspective? In her notes on the translation, Emma Ramadan claims, “By omitting the supposedly ever-present phenomenon of gender, Garréta both reveals and undermines sex-based oppression, demonstrating that gender difference is not an important or necessary determinant of our amorous relationship or our identities but is rather something constructed purely in the realm of the social.” She concludes: “To read Sphinx is to engage in this deconstruction.”
But I think Sphinx does more than perform a deconstruction of gender to reveal it as a social fiction. Indeed, Garréta’s novel takes us beyond the kind of poststructuralist critique of gender that Judith Butler offered in Gender Trouble, which was first published in 1990, just four years after Sphinx’s original appearance in French. In her brilliant revision of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva (among others), Butler argues that gender is not an ontological given — that is, it is neither original nor essential to the body. Instead, taking a psychoanalytic-cum-semiotic view of the matter, Butler insists that like any other aspect of subject formation, gender results from a repetitive “practice of signification,” one that involves the constant rehearsal of prewritten gender scripts. The emphasis on socially codified "scripts" by which to "play" gender leads to Butler’s theatrical vernacular of performativity.
Ramadan’s reading of Sphinx strikes me as Butlerian in its emphasis on how Garréta’s use of language undermines the social construction of gender. If, as Butler claims in Gender Trouble, the repetition of gendered language “produces reality-effects that are eventually misperceived as ‘facts,’” then Garréta’s elimination of gendered language seeks to deconstruct and thereby redress this misperception. This much is certainly true. However, I remain hesitant about a Butlerian reading of Sphinx for one major reason: the elimination of gendered language doesn’t exactly constitute a radical performance of gender. In Gender Trouble, Butler discusses drag as a parodic mode that demonstrates the performative nature of all gender. In RuPaul’s words, “We all came into this world naked. The rest is all drag.” But Sphinx doesn’t offer an exaggerated performance of gender, and so for this reader at least, it doesn’t really fucker with the notion of gender as such. Which brings me back to my earlier point: the novel’s deemphasizing of gender doesn’t deconstruct so much as suspend it. Gender remains unmarked and thus not performed at all.
For this reason, Butler proves less helpful in interpreting Sphinx than it may at first appear. Who can help us, however, is Kath Weston, a lesser-known anthropologist whose brilliant and often beautiful work deserves far more attention than it gets, both inside and outside of academia. To be sure, Weston is a descendent of Butler. Like Butler, Weston also holds that gender is not an “ontological locale,” and she also remains invested in the notion of gender performativity. However, whereas Butler’s notion of a repetitive practice of signification is only abstractly temporal, Weston’s more anthropological work ushers gender into real-world time. And I think it is this crucial shift that helps us understand the peculiar suspension of gender in Garréta’s novel.
In her fascinating and criminally under-read book Gender in Real Time, Weston adopts the concept of “zero” for gender studies. The zero concept originally emerged in Arabic mathematics, where it was not conceived as a number but as a placeholder, a strictly valueless void that held space for another numeral that could insert value in its place. Thus, instead of the Roman numeral X, which simply denotes an absolute value, the Arabic numeral 10 proves far more mysterious, comprising a value-presence (1) and a nonvalue-absence (0). In the numeral 10, 0 has no value in itself; instead, it's a value vacuum that holds space for value in potentia: 11, 12, 13, and so on.
Just as in this example zero holds the door open for value to enter into the “ones” place, zero also suspends value in larger numbers, where its presence becomes more immediately obvious. Compare the Roman numeral M to the Arabic numeral 1,000,000. The introduction of zero systematizes mathematical representation by keeping the number of digits constant. This makes things much easier when the number increases, say, to 1,525,328. The simple addition of the valueless 0 makes it possible to avoid the madness of MDXXVCCCXXVIII?!
For Weston, the zero concept becomes most useful for gender studies when considered phenomenologically — that is, in terms of temporality and perception. Although I don’t have the space here to reproduce Weston’s analysis with great nuance, her basic idea is that gender performance is at least a two-way street, depending not only on the “performance” of a gendered subject, but also on the way others actively gender that same subject. Gender is therefore the result of a reciprocal process that is both internal and external; it is always happening, and always in real time.
I’d wager that for most people, the reciprocal process of gendering others and being gendered by others largely goes unnoticed. If that’s true, it’s probably because the “scripts” on which most people base their performance of gender conform to local, social norms. And yet, because gender is always being produced in real time, Weston asserts that there is always also a “zero moment” — or, really, an unending series of zero moments — that occurs before gendering takes place. In that zero moment, gender is suspended. Thus, like the mathematical zero, Weston's zero moment is a placeholder for gender formation in potentia.
An example may help clarify the issue. Just as Butler uses exaggerated performance of drag to indicate that gender is always being performed, even in everyday settings, Weston uses the example of a gender-nonconforming individual to illustrate the ubiquity of zero moments in the real-time rendering of gender. Gender-nonconforming individuals constantly find themselves in situations that place them in relation to gender-conforming individuals who often hold very normative views about gender and thus have normative expectations for how others perform gender as well.
What happens in such an encounter? Weston draws on anthropological and phenomenological techniques to describe how the gender-nonconforming individual’s gender performance may not be immediately legible to those with more normative expectations. For those who understand gender as a strict binary or who live in a society where such an understanding is normative (and that’s pretty much all of us), it literally takes time to process the visual cues and assign the gender-nonconforming individual a gender, whether that’s “male,” “female,” “gender-fluid,” or some other designation. More often than not, this external gendering does not conform to the way the individual in question would gender themself. And yet, having lived in a gender-normative society, the gender-nonconforming individual is constantly aware of others’ perceptions and misperceptions, both of which also have an effect on their particular gender performance at any given time. Thus, the point of Weston’s phenomenological approach is twofold: not only is gender constantly being produced and reproduced in real time, but this production of gender also arises from complex social negotiations — often only barely perceptible — between two or more subjects.
Okay, so what does all of this stuff about zero moments and phenomenology have to do with Sphinx? Stated briefly, I see Garréta’s elimination of gendered language as a kind of prolonged zero moment, a drawn-out suspension that does not eliminate gender so much as create a placeholder for it. In this way, Garréta’s novel serves as an invitation for readers to stay with the uncertainty produced by bracketing the gender question. To be sure, this is an invitation that many readers fail to take up. Just like in Weston’s concept of the zero moment, the zero moment set up by Garréta is often quickly filled in with some kind of gender value. If there is any doubt about this, I’d simply remind the reader of the story I related about finding Sphinx in the “Lesbian Fiction” section of the bookstore — the book could only have ended up there through some projection of gender (not to mention sexuality) onto the principal characters. This gendering was confirmed later when I told a friend the same story, and she confessed that she would also have assumed that the relationship between the narrator and A*** was a lesbian one.
What happens when readers refuse the characters' gender to remain suspended is that the novel instantly becomes about gender. But the whole point of suspension is that that it holds the door open for uncertainty — and thus possibility. Garréta’s narrator relishes her opportunity to produce a similar kind of uncertainty in their work as a DJ at the club Apocryphe:
My strategy was to inspire incertitude; I derived pleasure in imbuing these souls [i.e., clubgoers] with doubt by not playing into their pathetic ruses. Che vuoi? I was leading them to the brink of an essential anxiety. My reply was always “maybe.” It was a dangerous game that exposed me to the disapproval, disrespect, or insidious resentment of the people to whom I denied the assurance of being a subject.
For the narrator, the kind of incertitude described here goes straight to the ontological bone, reminding the eager nightclubbers that the Apocryphe is a “milieu where the arbitrary reigns.” As such, not all desires will be fulfilled. And for the nocturnal crew whose sense of entitlement to the sonic environment produced by the nightclub’s resident DJ is “their sole ontological proof, their sole cogito, their foundation and justification” – for this crew, ignoring of their musical desires is tantamount to a denial of their existence.
An important bait-and-switch operation has taken place in the narrator’s musing on the power of the DJ. Whereas Garréta places the gender of her characters in suspension, the narrator of Sphinx places identity itself in suspension, taking those in her sonic thrall and, to her mind at least, fucking with their very sense of being. This is important because it means that Sphinx goes far beyond opening the question of gender; indeed, it opens the possibility that all identity formation constitutes a performances of the inessential. Suddenly an existential issue has transformed into an ontological one. Which, of course, means that the conceptual stakes of Sphinx are much greater than they at first appear. And indeed, if this particular bait and switch doesn’t tip the reader off, then surely the novel's often densely philosophical prose should, not to mention the narrator’s endless discussions of presence and absence (or the expressible and the inexpressible) as well as their dissertation research on apophatic theology (i.e., “negative” theology).
The ontological underpinnings of Garréta’s novel cause an unexpected vertigo for the reader who approaches it with a narrow focus on gender. I think this vertigo may be what Daniel Levin Becker refers to when he writes of the novel’s inescapable mystery: “To read Sphinx already aware of its conceit is only to break the picture back into its constituent puzzle pieces, to reverse the sequence of the questions your bewilderment asks: to go in wondering how the novelist pulled off this one trick, but come out wondering what kind of reality you’ve been inhabiting.”
In reading Sphinx, I experienced precisely the kind of figure/ground reversal that Becker implies here. As the question of gender fell away, more stirring enigmas began to rise to the surface. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but far more mysterious to me than the novel’s “genderless mystique” were the circumstances that led to the narrator taking the place of the Apocryphe's old DJ. The surprisingly grisly scene that gives the narrator this new job is bizarre and remains unaccounted for in the novel. What are we to think of it? And what about the novel's incredible ending, the immense strangeness of which alone delivers on the enigmatic promise of the book's title?
With these thoughts in mind, I’d like to invite readers to approach Sphinx as a novel that isn't really “about” gender after all. What changes for us if, instead, we read Garréta’s gender-related constraint as a tool to clear an opening — to see deeper into the essences of love, sensual embodiment, even being, however briefly?
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.
Coolidge, Sarah. “The Potential of Formless Beings: A Translation of Anne Garréta’s ‘Sphinx.’” Zyzzyva. 27 April 2015.
Garréta, Anne. Sphinx. Translated by Emma Ramadan. Deep Vellum, 2015.
Weston, Kath. Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age. Routledge, 2002.