What's the Story? Reading Deena Metzger's The Woman Who Slept with Men to Take the War out of Them

©2003 L.Timmel Duchamp

Deena Metzger's The Woman Who Slept with Men to Take the War out of Them tells the story of a woman writer trying to bring into plausible existence within the space of her own imagination a story that runs counter to all the stories she knows, a story that stands in defiant opposition to the unreflective, restrictive logic our society characterizes as "common sense." On the page, the novel looks like a play, but it lacks stage directions and offers no formal divisions into acts or scenes of whatever "action" it might describe. I imagined, as I was reading it, voices speaking almost at will, as though the text presented to us as a finished work of art originally began life as a transcript of voices speaking to the author that she has merely polished up and passed along to the reader. And yet my awareness of the sophistication of Metzger's narrative technique and the craft and artistry of her prose even as I persisted in constructing such an image in my imagination told me, from the beginning, that this aural impression of voices speaking to the author could only be a conceit promoted with calculation aforethought by the author.

The voices that make up the fabric of The Woman Who... include a "Narrator," who often describes scenes and settings for the stories told; a "Chorus," which occasionally offers comments and criticism of the group-generated sort, sometimes speaking as the voice of mainstream conventional wisdom, sometimes from the perspective of one late-1970s feminist faction or another; a "Witness"; "The Woman," who is the designated writer struggling to produce this new narrative; "The (Woman's) Friend," who is a constant critic, unable to suspend her disbelief in the very possibility of the story the writer wants to tell; "the Man," the writer's lover; and an extensive cast of characters, both invented and historical, most prominently Ada and the General, who figure in the stories told. The Woman wants to devise a narrative in which a war widow, Ada, by engaging in unspecified heterosexual relations with the General (whose men killed her husband and most of the people in her village), "takes the war out of" the General, who is neither "the worst of his species" nor the best. The story she wants to tell is not that of a man saved by the love of a Good Woman (a very popular story in the twentieth-century US), for the Woman says, of her own experience, that love itself makes no difference. What Metzger proposes will take the war out of soldiers and generals and similar others will not be love, but something else---something she apparently sees resulting from a certain kind of heterosexual relation.

In late February, 2003, when I had the impulse to take this book down from the shelf and reread it for the first time in twenty years, I went to Deena Metzger's website and found this quote prominently displayed:

To follow story is to understand the path of healing. Each of our stories is a universe. Each one of us is living a story. To discover its shape and essence is essential to soul making.
Metzger's depiction of the Woman's struggle to create a plausible story of women defeating war itself (rather than warriors) without the use of weapons, then, takes the power of story extremely seriously. Story, for Metzger, creates agency and possibility. Or, to use her own words, is necessary for "soul making." This novel was published in 1981 and written, we can surmise, during the 1970s. Although the woman-and-sex controversy associated with early 1980s feminism in the US centered on feminist positions toward pornography and sadomasochistic sex, many feminists throughout the 1970s struggled with fundamental questions about heterosexual relations. At the time of its publication, the very title of this novel not only implied a defense and acceptance of heterosexuality as compatible with feminist projects, but also challenged those cultural feminists who held that all men were biologically destined to be warlike, destructive, and oppressive. Early in the novel, the Chorus rebukes the Woman for sleeping with her lover:
We think you will betray us. We think when you will have to choose, you will choose him. We think this is not the time for women to be with men. We think it is more than difficult. We think it is dangerous. To you. And also to us. (22)
The Woman's (and Metzger's) attempt to tell this new story, then, not only flies in the face of common sense and an interminable history of women being the booty, the survivors, and the widows of war, but also implicates how Metzger positions herself as a feminist. The Chorus attacks both Ada for presenting herself at the General's house and the Woman---the novel's designated writer---for wishing to suggest that it might be possible to redeem male oppressors through the very heterosexual relations that many feminists viewed as an instrument of their own oppression.
Chorus. Every country is an occupied country. Every woman is an occupied territory. Every woman knows the enemy. Every woman who sleeps with a man sleeps with the general.

The Woman. It's not true.

The Chorus. You know it's true. You've volunteered for the enemy's bed. (18-19)

Shortly after I began rereading this novel, a friend forwarded me an email announcing the Lysistrata Project. On March 10, 2003, actors in hundreds of cities around the world would, according to the email, perform public readings of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, after which their audiences would discuss the play's relevance to the (then) threatening war against Iraq. The email openly fantasized the wives of all the leaders in both governments withholding sex in order to promote a diplomatic solution, but the underlying assumption of such a fantasy, viz., that the leaders' wives, being women, would likely oppose war in the first place, struck me as unwarranted, notwithstanding the thirteen-point gender gap (as reported in early March) in attitudes towards the war. Moreover, the March 10 readings---which took place in more than a thousand locations---constituted yet another moment of determined, global protest against the war that did not claim to be gender-based. Indeed, Katha Pollit quotes Sharron Bower, one of the New York actors who dreamed up the idea in the first place, as saying, "Nobody can resist an ancient Greek dick joke." As Pollit put it, "What a pleasure it was to have fun, vitality, humor and sex on our side, not to mention the literary canon, the glory that was Greece and the majority of the world's population, and leave the other side stuck with Confederate flags, Bible study and bigoted prom queens like Ann Coulter."

"Fun, vitality, humor and sex" might be a fair representation of the play, but most classical scholars must have been a bit surprised to find it being used to make an anti-war gesture resting on the apparent assumption that women are naturally opposed to war. While scholars note that Aristophanes, a conservative landowner, opposed the Pelopennesian war, they also suggest that he wrote Lysistrata to "exorcise" (as Eva Cantarella puts it) the tragedy of the decline of Athens' polis, and so depicted Athenian men, "reduced to pure animality," as forgetting fatherland and honor when they give in to the sexual extortion of women (70). The play, that is, shows them ending the war, but for the wrong---or rather, through lack of---reason, as if to say, this is how low we've fallen: that we are so beyond reason, which would require us ending the war, that only an appeal to our base animal instincts can stop the war.

The premise of Metzger's The Woman Who. . . effectively seeks to invert the premise of the Lysistrata story. Aristophanes depicts Lysistrata and her followers as appealing to the willingness of weak and irrational men to do whatever it takes to get laid. Metzger, on the other hand, suggests that at least some warlike and violent men may be taught to perceive the world in a more responsible, mature manner precisely through their bodies (which Aristophanes, like most ancient Greeks, figured in opposition to reason). Barbara Meyerhoff, introducing the novel, characterizes the struggle Metzger depicts thus:

[T]he enemy is The General, one who destroys indifferently, without awareness or choice. The Woman sets herself against his deadness. She conquers fundamental anatomical truth, that a man and a woman uniting briefly make the two into one. This primordial form of connection is a vanquishment by taming---her body the cauldron that transforms him from the Other into one who is momentarily a part of her, a partner. In a dramatic but quiet moment, the alchemical work is done: he covers her feet against the cold with a rough blanket. The General has developed enough imagination and therefore empathy to feel what she feels. So this is why women have always slept with warriors, even those who have killed their loved ones. . . . They sleep with the enemy to make him their own, to assert their commitment to life over death, in final refusal to believe that anyone who understands can continue to destroy. (vii)
Meyerhoff suggests that the urge to talk to the men who make violent war and thereby heal their insanity is a common one. She describes having a recurring daydream, as a child, of making Hitler see her humanity and the humanity of those she wanted to plead for. But I would argue that this urge, this "recurring daydream," is not the story that the Woman in Metzger's novel is trying to tell. Meyerhoff describes a fantasy of wish-fulfillment. Metzger's writer, who has fled to a cabin in the woods to escape an armed man who has been stalking her, is, on the contrary, seeking a new story. She has no illusions about her power to heal her stalker by talking to him herself. And yet she insists that there must be some other way to "take the war" out of individual men. And so she says to the Narrator, "I'm tired of you. And of all the others. If you can't tell me what we make happen, I don't want to hear it. A story is not what happens to us. It is what we do" (93). And when the Chorus tells her that to deal with the General she must have something other than her body to bargain with---like "oil, gold, uranium, land, atom bomb secrets"---she says "I think I've heard this story before," to which they reply: "You have. It's the only story" (86).

And so the Woman begins, tentatively, to try to imagine this brave, bold woman she calls Ada, who presents herself to the General "with the full cognizance that she is committing a political act." The Woman tells her friend that Ada "is the important one." Her Friend replies, "Oh, you mean this book isn't about yourself?" And the Woman says, "Hardly. I am not brave enough" (17).

"Once upon a time," the Woman says, "there was a woman who lived in an occupied village and who, with deliberateness and forethought, after her husband was killed..." and her Friend retorts, "How can you write that, how can you possibly know about that?"(18) And in fact, the Woman begins the story over so many times that after a while some of the details slip---even as certain of them become iconic: Ada's sleeping on her husband's grave, the red shoes she wears when walking through the village to the General's house, the black and white silk dress she wears that is the only piece of clothing she owns besides one other dress (that in a later version gets irreparably soiled when the General rapes her on her husband's grave), and the fertile egg she takes to the General. The details about the village mostly do not change, only what happens between Ada and the General.

Woman. Once upon a time there was a woman who lived in an occupied village.

Her Friend. How can you know what that is?

Woman. A village isn't different from a city, and if my house weren't occupied, why do I live now in such retreat? (19)

The Woman, that is, insists that in imagining the lives of women differently situated from herself, her own experience (in this case, of being stalked and unable to secure the assistance of either the police or her lover) provides insight and empathy, helping her to bridge the distance of their differences. Significantly, she sees the ability to tell a story about differently situated women as crucial to her own efforts to exert agency. "How can I enact it in my own life," she asks, "if I cannot see it even in my own mind" (86).

In the course of trying to imagine a story that works, not only does the Woman's interlocutors (the Friend, the Chorus, the Narrator, the Witness) criticize each attempt and force her to repeatedly re-vision the story, but other stories of heterosexual relations between men of war and women also intrude. The characters whose stories make interventions into the Woman's attempt to forge this new narrative include Malinche, a retired, bed-ridden prostitute who once conducted her business in the cabin in which the Woman is staying, a woman (who is a descendant of Malinche) who kills a guard with his own weapon as he rapes her in her jail cell, a child prostitute servicing US GIs in Southeast Asia, a mermaid, and other, nameless women. These are mostly painful stories that, like the Friend's and Chorus's comments, repeatedly cause the Woman to reconsider and try again.

Among these, the story of Malinche (who, when she speaks, is identified as "Malintzi") figures prominently. Malinche, as Metzger makes clear, was a "gift" to Cortez from her brothers. The Woman learns through Malinche's narrative that a woman who in her very person constitutes a gift has no possibility of taking the war out of the man to whom she has been given---an insight which assists the Woman (and Metzger's readers) in appreciating the importance of Ada's making a gift to the General.

Her Friend. What is war?

The Woman. War is taking what has not been offered.

Her Friend. What is the opposite of war?

The Woman. Gifts. (86)

Before the Woman comes to see a certain kind of gift-giving as the key to telling her story, she attempts to imagine women offering themselves as gifts in explicit exchange for concessions (such as sparing one's sister's life). Her Friend scorns the very idea and suggests that the women in these situations should simply kill the men who are menacing those the women want to protect.

In the course of constructing Ada's story, the Woman elaborates on one of the constant elements of the (ever-changing) story, the fertile eggs that Ada brings the General. Eggs are scarce in Ada's village since the General's men have taken most of the livestock and food and the surviving women have been forced to kill most of the hens in order to feed their children. The women hide what few eggs are produced from the General, and the General, in retaliation, passes a law against raising chickens altogether. Ada, however, takes him a (fertile) egg that has just been laid. She tells him it is a gift he cannot eat. The General complains that he is hungry. Ada says "Generals are always hungry. You expect us to feed you. I know about hunger, but of a different kind. I can't eat; something eats at me. I've brought a gift. . . which you can not [sic] eat" (75-6).

Take this egg, General, which you must never eat. Keep it warm, put it in your armpit, fold it in the elbow, hide it in your groin, General. Hold it warm there between your legs by the little sack of eggs you carry. You have neglected to think of yourself as a hen, so hold the egg there by the little wrinkled pouch, the delicate brown bag, the leathery wine skin filled with other eggs, thousands of eggs, little swimming eggs, tiny tadpole eggs, devil-tailed eggs. It's not the hunger that matters, General, it's the chick.

The General. And my hunger?

Ada. That's easy. Do what I do, what the village women do; think tomorrow you're going to eat. . . tomorrow will be a magnificent feast. Think when the war is over there will still be hundreds of chicks. That is what you must think. (76)

In the middle of a page, a line stands alone, unattributed to any of the novel's characters: "This is a book about eggs. Nothing more. And nothing less" (104). Surely the egg constitutes the quintessential representation of the potential for life. Metzger's metonymy, figuring not only female but also male gametes as "eggs," insists that although female sexuality alone is widely perceived as nearly identical with that potential (since it is women who produce "eggs" and who gestate new human life in their very bodies), male sexuality, too, fosters life. The most frequent figurations of male sperm are those of competition---between individual spermatozoa---and waste (through the image of millions of spermatozoon dying every time a penis ejaculates them). The very multiplicity of these "eggs" seems to encourage an attitude of distance from their potentiality to a far greater extent than the monthly shedding of an egg through menstruation apparently does. Metzger, I believe, is telling us that were everyone to acknowledge this largely invisible aspect of male sexuality, war would be taken out of men, because their "hunger" would necessarily take second-place to the "chick."

The only sexual images I personally have ever associated with war are those of rape, prostitution, and the pornographic pin-up. When I look at mass-media images of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon---the leading "generals" of our day, both fanatical religious fundamentalists---I see joyless, affectless drones whom I can't imagine as being even capable of sexual pleasure, much less likely to engage in it. And when I look at images of Donald Rumsfeld, I see a veritable Dr. Death, gleefully rubbing his hands together over the carnage his orders produce, a sexless caricature of a human being whose supreme pleasure lies in ending, rather than celebrating or generating, life. In the face of the overwhelming sexless sensibility now dominating US culture and politics, I find myself in the position of the Woman's Friend, who questions the power of "gifts," particularly when they are the most precious possible (viz., eggs).

The Woman. I have come to love Ada so. Don't let any harm come to her.

The Narrator. There is nothing we can do. Her life is beyond our control.

The Woman. And beyond our protection.

Her Friend. Do you think we are incapable of inventing guns? (110)

The Friend, of course, misses the point. The struggle, Metzger insists, is first and foremost against "war"---not against "warriors." The "invention" of guns must necessarily change the character of the struggle, but can never end it. Confronted with the hatefulness of generals, it is at times almost impossible to remember and appreciate the importance of that point.

Metzger's central insight underscores the crucial importance of not allowing ourselves to be distracted into prolonged struggle against the wrong enemy.

Her Friend. I don't believe any of it.

The Woman. Don't think about the General. It only matters what she does. (117)

In other words, what most matters is this new story, since this new story is exactly about what she does. We already know all the stories there are to know about generals and war and killing and rape; we don't need to think about them more than we have already done. Metzger's Woman, after all, contends with them throughout the novel.

Metzger's implicit assumptions are these: if we can find a way to tell this new story, a story of a woman, Ada, performing this intentionally political act whereby she teaches a professional man of war about the potential for life he carries within his body and must learn to take responsibility for, a story of "eggs," if we can first imagine and then tell and retell this story, the world can change. Killing the warriors merely keeps war itself alive. The Chorus says that women who sleep with men will "choose him" and "betray us." This novel refuses this choice and suggests, instead, that imagining an Ada who exercises political agency in a heterosexual relation makes a different outcome possible. "It is a matter of eggs," Metzger says. "Nothing more. And nothing less."

Works Cited

March, 2003

This essay first appeared in the Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, No. 12.

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