I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The French writer speaks to his translator about his latest autobiographical novel to appear in English. Titled In the Deep, it deals with the link between desire and his early literary output, as well as the effect of his Catholic upbringing and World War II on his imagination.
Pierre Guyotat has been infamous for the invention of an extreme, excessive, material language of violence and sexuality since the 1967 publication of his first fiction book, Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers (English translation 2003). Set during the Algerian war, this epic reflects Guyotat’s years as a soldier, and then as a prisoner of the French army, held in solitary confinement for two months and charged with damaging the morale of the troops, possession of prohibited journals, and complicity in desertion. His next novel, Eden Eden Eden (1970, English translation 2009), a stark hallucination of the atrocities of war and sexual predation, was censored by the French government for eleven years. Eden is written in what Guyotat calls “Language,” an oratory, visceral, and rhythmic lexicon for the free creation of forms that he distinguishes from prose. He went on to publish Prostitution (1975, an excerpt of which was translated in 1995), Le Livre (1984, untranslated), Progénitures (2000, untranslated), and continues to work in this vein in his current project Géhenne, which depicts a radicalized space of abjection, populated with whores, figures of nonbeing, and their masters.
Since 2006, Guyotat has also produced a series of fictional autobiographies, written in more conventional narrative language that he ironically refers to as “normative.” In them, he evokes the philosophical, historical, and metaphysical questions that have haunted his life in art. The first of these works, Coma (2006, English translation 2010), revisits the spiritual and writerly crisis that led Guyotat to a coma in the early 1980s. Formation (2007, untranslated) is the tale of a child who would devote his life to creation. With In the Deep, Guyotat returns to his early days of writing, detailing the hidden, masturbatory practice that ran parallel, and beneath, his avowed writing of poetry at the time.
In the Deep, just out from Semiotext(e), is the story of a summer that Guyotat spent in England as a young adolescent, on his first trip without his family, and of his sexual, philosophical, emotional, and artistic discoveries during those months. I worked on the English translation of the book for about two years, and tried to stay as close as possible to Guyotat’s syntactically complex prose, with cascading clauses and sentences sometimes stretching to entire paragraphs or even pages. There were a number of wonderful terms to invent: for example, branlée-avec-texte, or “jacking-off-with-text,” which I condensed into “the beat-sheet.” Asked to comment on the book, Edmund White wrote: “This is one of the best books I have read in the last ten years. Guyotat is one of the very few geniuses of our day.”
In addition to his fiction and prose writings, Guyotat has published a number of essays and interviews. His work has been produced for the stage. An adaptation of his latest fiction, Joyeux animaux de la misère (Joyous animals of misery, untranslated) was performed during the Ircam Manifeste Festival 2014 in Paris, and will be brought to the stage next year for the Festival D’Automne 2015.
Noura Wedell You are predominantly a fiction writer. Why did you decide to write the series of autobiographical narratives Coma, Formation, and In the Deep?
Pierre Guyotat I’d been thinking about Coma for along time, ever since I went through the events that are the subject of the book. At the end of the 1970s and at the beginning of the ’80s I lived through a very profound crisis, brought on by the fact that I felt I’d gone too far in the transformations of forms.
NW At the time, you were writing EPQ or Encore plusque la lutte des classes (Even more than the class struggle), fragments of which were published as Le Livre.The book is a kind of archaeology of slavery going back through the centuries, a compendium of elements, bodies, and things that you reanimated from what you called the Great Prostitutional Pandemy of History. The language on the page looks quite particular: shortened words, alternative spellings, many pronounciation marks (apostrophes, diacritical marks), and symbols. The radicality of this project led you very far. You’d practically stopped eating and lived in a state of extreme anxiety.This, along with heavy doses of the over-the-counter painkiller Compralgyl, eventually triggered a coma.
PG Yes, but at the same time I felt a desire to write something from the depths of that distress, as you might desire to write Ecclesiastes in times of misery, when you don’t have the strength for it. In the end, it took me about thirty years to realize that desire to write Coma.
After having described the events of my adult life in Coma, I wanted to return to the past and to my childhood, and wrote Formation. Then, I wanted to go further, beyond childhood, always with the purpose of explaining how and why I’d decided to write, and of owning up to being an artist. I say artist rather than writer because the latter seems too restrictive; its field is too narrow to refer to the role of builder and handler of forms. So, first there was the crisis of Coma; then the process of development of a creative mind; and then, with In the Deep, what the desire to create disrupted and shattered within me.
In each book, I was telling the story of a child or an adolescent who had decided to make literary creation his life. I searched, through my memory, for the shortest moment that would contain, biographically, everything that was implied by the decision to devote my life to making art, accepting the risks, the possible crises, and even the catastrophes. The risk of madness loomed large very early on, for example.
I chose the summer of 1955, when I was fifteen, because I spent it largely outside of France, in a friendly country very different from mine at the time: England. I was in the north of England, along the Scottish border, one of the great regions of European Romanticism, a place of absolute romanticism for me. I was a very romantic adolescent at the time, closer to German or British Romanticism than to the French version.
But the subject of In the Deep is mostly my sexual writing practice. The beat-sheet practice took place in my youth, and I’d like to make it clear that I have not written in that way for years now. At the time, I wanted to have the masturbatory act find some utility apart from ephemeral pleasure, in the writing of a text marked by desire and imminent ejaculation.
NW You spoke about this practice in 1972, at the Artaud-Bataille conference organized by Philippe Sollers. (Your text, “Langage du corps,” was published in English in the Semiotext(e) Polysexuality issue of 1981.) In it, you explain how masturbation arose from the social fear of revealing your body as a producer of substances. The link between writing and masturbation had to do with understanding the embodied aspect of symbolic systems, the connection between body and language. It was a certain refusal of transcendence, as well as an experiment in the production of desire.
PG Yes, and at the time, it took on a very exasperated form, probably because I was very far from home. I was also writing poems and prose without any carnal stimulation. Being in a foreign country increased the clandestine aspect of my practice; I was surrounded by people whom I barely knew. This raised both the stakes and risks of the game. It was also a time when I was torn between my desire for girls and my desire for boys, both desires full of adolescent tension and playful detachment. This was truly an internal rupture for me. I believe we all work with a fundamental rupture within ourselves. What is important is to dare to know, to accept and address it through artistic means. I did this fairly early on, and the north of England was one of the small theaters of my budding consciousness. There were still borders at the time in Europe, not to mention the great border between the Communist East and the so-called free West. It was probably fundamental that I be surrounded by a language other than the one I was used to in France, British English, which has very much changed since the war and postwar periods.
NW Language hadn’t yet become impoverished as purely communicational.
PG Yes, this is especially true of the language of television. At the time, the language on both sides of the English Channel was quite salacious and evocative. There was still a proletariat and a peasantry, and a very material language with regional distinctions. The language that was spoken in the north of England was very different from what was spoken in London, or in Kent. Even in France, in the north, people did not speak the same way as they did in Paris or in the south. There were different accents, different words and expressions.
The family I was living with had been friends of my family since the Resistance. We were staying along the North Sea, in a coastal village beneath a towering, powerful maritime fort, à la Walter Scott. I fell in love with a young French girl from Brittany who was living with a family from the neighborhood. At the same time, I was resisting the incessant solicitations of the son of my parents’ friends, a young blond boy, exhausted and exhausting, with whom I had a lot of fun. With the girl things were different, and I’ve never forgotten that young love. This book testifies to that, as it narrates and tries to explain that love.
France and England were also still empires with colonies. Both countries had just emerged from the war and were quite impoverished. The north of France had already been very impacted by the Great War, and the northeast of France had just been destroyed again. English cities had been heavily bombed. These are things we shouldn’t forget. And there were important social struggles, anti-colonial struggles, “rebellions” beginning or already underway in Kenya against England and in Algeria against France, among other places.
In addition to narrating this month spent in England, the book covers my return to France, to too-familial places. My internal split resumed there, and I began to translate it into writing. The text also describes other periods of my life through flashbacks; for example, the birth of my masturbation habit in a small rural boarding school just after World War II, and my first conflicts with my father, whom I greatly admired.
NW This moment in your adolescence was also a time in which you began to acknowledge your class situation.
PG Yes, and with it came the intensification of an awareness of social disparity that marks my entire work, from all points of view, on all levels. Since childhood I’ve always been more attracted to “the people,” as they were called at the time, than to my own class. For me, the people represented freedom, metaphysically and physically, in terms of the body. My own family’s cultural status prohibited such freedom and this caused another real rupture for me; it was not simply the luxury of a privileged kid. Although my father was a country doctor, my family was not rich; we lived at home as I did in boarding school, in a very rudimentary way.
My internal sexual rupture was an effect of my belief in Christ, triggered by the notion that he is both man and God. When you have faith, you experience this duality intensely. My family was very religious, if not overly pious. The Bible’s Christian imagery, both in the New and Old Testaments, preceded all other imagery for me. When I was young, I believed in an entity that was at once human and divine, and I also believed in the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost combined in a single God—an invisible divinity, an entity without a body, without beginning or end. At the same time, I was very strongly possessed by the imagery of the crucifiction, which is unbelievably carnal and sexual. It’s rather hard to top: the almost naked body, members spread wide, arms outstretched, and thighs squeezed tight. This was a concrete, finite, and limited imagery, whereas the other was abstract and infinite.
In addition, I was taught that before being my parents’ son, and my father’s son in particular, I was the son of God. That was my belief, and it was strongly anchored in me, through prayer especially. At home and in boarding school we prayed quite often: before eating, when we woke up in the morning, at night. They told us that prayer was the most beautiful thing in the world, which is not untrue. It gives dignity to humanity. As a child, I took all of this in very physically, in the flesh, especially since Catholicism is so physical. This is perhaps why it has endured for so long. The Church wasn’t a constraint for me. I was very content in what I felt to be a protective, poetic, intellectual, and metaphysical atmosphere. The seminary instilled in us the difference between matter and spirit, framing them as different entities that were necessarily combined. Flesh was an element of knowledge, but its temptation weakened the strength of spirit and of mind. In that very Cartesian education, both the flesh and the spirit existed, and the idea was to find some kind of balance between them—which, of course, I did not want. This must have corresponded to the internal rupture that I’d later experience. But there was a great gentleness in all of this, and I was certainly well disposed toward it. I placed my revolt elsewhere. But as the son of God I did exactly what I did with my own flesh father: I provoked him, and went farther, into sin so to speak.
NW There is another fundamental rupture that informs your work. It is within the realm of art, and it has to do with the problematic link between human creation and horror, following from a critique of humanism. I’m thinking of the relation between slavery and the development of modernism in Europe or the problem of the extreme rationality of the death camps of the Second World War.
PG I’ve always been revolted by existence, by the very fact of being human. There are reasons for this. As a child I knew what was going on in the adult world. A large portion of my family fought in the Resistance, and suffered very much for that. We were physically and biographically touched by the war’s horror. Through what I saw in photographs and through the testimony of those who had survived, I was well positioned to feel the affront against humanity that the war enacted. Luckily, I never smelled the odor of death, the way the children in the camps or elsewhere had to smell it. Smells are fundamental. But as early as five-and-a-half or six years old I did see photographs from a book produced by two of my uncles who had fought in the Resistance. They were images of a degraded man, of a degraded body, degraded despite what a somewhat strained humanism would have you believe: that man, in all circumstances, always retains some form of dignity. The image of human grandeur disappears in a body that is reduced to itself. This made a deep impression on me.
NW You can see it in the importance attributed to the body in your work. In fact, you have often been called a “writer of the body.”
PG This question of the body has been brought up very often in regard to my work; it has been explained and re-explained. I have myself added fuel to the fire, since I have even used the term to describe myself. I am a bit removed from all of that now, and more and more so as I get older. The body is self-evident; you can’t get away from it. You live through the body, think through it, feel through it. A body is inevitable, whatever it is. But—how can I say this?—I am not at all the auteur or poet of the body, as has so often been said. I find this too restrictive; my work extends beyond that question.
What I write, what I’ve been able to do and to experience, is a question of being. Much more than the body, being is what torments me, if I can use the word torment for this. I mean quite simply the fact that we exist. We make art not to prove to ourselves that we exist, but in order to place ourselves on the border of the circle of being. It is a circle into which we can fall, as if into nothingness. I’m interested in being and in the circle. The body is what allows and at the same time interferes with being. It impedes, torments, and even negates being. But of course I’m happy to speak about the body. My body wasn’t any more affected than were the bodies of others, those of my generation who were deeply harmed by the war. You know, it is not insignificant to have been born in 1940. I always felt that I belonged very strongly to my generation. Children have a specific way of feeling solidarity with other children. Even as a child I felt very close to the children whom I saw in photographs of the war—persecuted, debased, and deprived of their childhood, as they said at the time.
The question of how we feel solidarity, and of the feeling of solidarity itself, becomes greater with age. What is it, morally, that requires solidarity? It doesn’t seem to be as vital a need as eating, drinking, sleeping, finding shelter, or being taken care of when sick. Solidarity is not an irrefutable given. Art helps us ask ourselves these questions. I like to go beyond what I think are somewhat self-evident questions, dig beneath them and debunk them, to understand what they truly imply. Too many massacres, murders, and attacks on liberty have been committed throughout history in the name of so-called subversion for artists to claim to be blissful subversives. I am not a blissful subversive, and if I am one, it is despite myself.
NW Violence passes through and exerts itself on bodies. We can perhaps understand solidarity as a physical fact.
PG Very much so. It is important to understand why the human has a natural feeling of solidarity, if you will. Everyone says, “It’s natural, solidarity is necessary, it’s much better that way, etcetera ….” And yet, we should question the rational foundations of these supposed elementary and intangible principles, which are never explained to us as children. We are often told solidarity arose because of fear. Perhaps fear is the first feeling in history: the human is afraid, the animal is also afraid. In some sense, fear is what rules the world: think of financial greed, for example. But where does that fear come from? And when does it appear, historically? Was it when humanity was still quite young, endangered, and living in caves? This explanation seems a bit too material, too sociological even. Can we imagine an initial animality that separated into species through evolution? Solidarity might then be the regret, the nostalgia for that unity, coming from a shared body and a shared origin.
NW In In the Deep you speak of the narrator’s “small reason,” the fact that there are many things that the young adolescent doesn’t understand, or is quite confused about: the genitals and their function and use, for instance; or more abstract questions that follow from religious teachings, ideas about virginity, the immaculate conception, etcetera. These misconceptions become very productive in the book.
PG Well, even as adults we are all idiots. We are all ignorant in relation to what we should know about the world. Imagine a kind of creator, or anyone with much greater knowledge than we have, who could hear us speaking about the world, interpreting it, even with the greatest possible knowledge. They’d take us all for simpletons. In the Deep is a reflection on this. It recomposes an image of myself as I think I was at the time of my adolescence, with what I was living internally, and with the image that I would have shown the world. The book was an attempt at the reconstruction of the being that I was: a total, interior and exterior, being.
NW I understand this productivity of ignorance, even of error, as another aspect of your thinking on materiality. You treat the closed horizons of your characters, their groping in the dark concerning what they do not know or do not understand, as very positive. The narrator, for example, builds extremely complex systems, almost philosophical analyses, from these very partial objects of knowledge. These imaginary musings end up being full of very interesting flashes of truth built from error.
PG I wanted to document the questioning and false leads that you experience during the panic of adolescence, everything that you don’t know as a child and that makes you become an artist or a writer. I don’t think you should explain everything to children; it’s important to leave open zones of questioning, somewhat magical and otherworldly. Children will take care of them later. You shouldn’t provide a reason for everything. It is through this effort at self-understanding that the child develops, and that his or her intelligence and willpower are formed. It depends on what you want to make of children—machines or artists.
NW Can you speak a bit more about the figure of the idiot? There’s a very endearing character in the book called Douggie. He is probably what today we’d call intellectually disabled. In the book, he is described as a figure halfway between the animal and the human. First, of course, Douggie sounds like doggie, but the resemblance is increased by the fact that he acts like a dog too: he sometimes sleeps in the doghouse, and pisses when he gets too upset. Strangely, his family doesn’t seem to object to the boy’s animal quality; they even embrace it. It’s quite disconcerting.
PG The more I progress in my work, the more I think I’ve created a world of idiots. There aren’t many reasonable beings in the world that I’ve invented. The figures that circulate in it are excessive: there are idiots and half-idiots in my fiction. As a child, I was very close to people who were disabled, and so-called idiots. Am I not myself some kind of sexual idiot? There were a few of them in my village: peasants, workers, old, young, almost all of them children of alcoholics. They were children who’d never grown up. In my memory, they are inseparable from those unfortunate men who’d been mutilated in the Great War. You’d see the veterans sitting on benches across from what was called the Hospice, still quite young at the time. You’d also see them in the farms, sitting at the corner of the hearth. All of these people were protected by the population, and more or less well taken care of by their families. There were also quite a few drunks, local stars of sorts who were allowed the crudest form of expression. I can still remember some of the diatribes delivered on summer nights by these eternal drunks who often also had mental illnesses, and whom the population accompanied in their rants. I remember one man who must have been very handsome when he was young. He had a very funny, extremely gallant rhetoric, but at the same time, in the summer, he’d lie across the melted tar of the road that ran through the village.
Also, when I was a child, many of my friends had disabilities. In particular, I was very close to a boy named Jean who had a clubfoot and walked with a very severe limp. Of everyone I have met in my life, he is probably the most gentle. You could not find the slightest streak of malice or jealousy in that boy. You know, clubfooted people are very important in what I do. I’ve always been attracted to those kinds of bodies, maybe because their articulatory or verbal disability signals the body that much more. So-called corporeal or mental defects touch me just as much as perfection, if not more. For an author of fiction, perfection has no relief, no salient points. And I need those to produce. Not everyone is Fra Angelico.
Finally, I was, and still am, handicapped by a very severe stutter, which certainly modeled and then reinforced my personality. Perhaps I owe the fact of writing to this stutter, since it forced me to write sentences out on paper instead of pronouncing them. This early stutter changed my relationship with the world; it made it more intense, a bit convulsive. I am not complaining.
NW You were also socially differentiated from your peers because you were attracted to boys.
PG You know, when you discover that you have a double sexual orientation, you feel that you are a species apart. At least I felt that way. I took it to be more of an ontological than a social problem. First, there was this very simple fact that sexual objects were multiplied, and my sexual desire became extremely rich, too rich for the young adolescent that I was. I didn’t know which way to turn. It was not a source of shame; instead, it was a torment that seemed almost philosophical, even scientific. What was it that made my desire different from the desire of others, restricted as it was to a single object? This even led me to question whether I had the right to live. My torment was also intensified by the fact that sexuality itself, the complete sexual act, was still unknown to me. I’d never done it, either one way or another. In a certain sense, any act of sexuality, except for the poorly named practice of self-eroticism, became impossible, prohibited, because I did not know which partner to choose. The question was too heavy for a young adolescent, and especially for me who was attracted to poetry and to living a life transformed into a poetic act. Of course, it was impossible to turn to adults. I was so engaged in my struggle to continue to live, despite what I took to be a kind of internal catastrophe, to ever bring myself to speak to a doctor. I experienced my desire predominantly as a concern with my own self. What did it have to do, if anything, with social appearances? My angst was too strong to be concerned about any exterior image. I didn’t know if others knew of my desire for boys as well as girls, and I didn’t really care. But I understand that in certain environments, with a certain body, the question of social insertion can be extremely cruel. That was not my case; my family was always very delicate and respectful in that regard. On the other hand, my romantic dream at the time was to meet a beautiful girl and to have children. Things were already complicated by poetry, the practice of poetry that barred that promise of happiness: poetry with its drama, its “curse,” incompatible with conjugal happiness. Poetry already appeared as a kind of destiny for me, maybe a tragic one.
NW The crisis that you went through in the late 1970s and early ’80s was a painful realization of this destiny.
PG Poetry is not an indifferent act. It is an attempt at creation, and human creation, in principle, can appear as a clumsy imitation of divine creation. You don’t need to be religious, or to follow any established system of belief, to feel this. Creation provides access to zones of being that it would be best not to crack open sometimes. This is true not only of poetry, but of art in general. The issue is not material difficulty—it’s that the artist is perhaps the one who confronts existence as being, being in the cosmos, most directly. For the artist nothing is self-evident, and there is a price to pay for this. Of course, I understand that this privileged locus of creativity in art is historically determined, and has been very much problematized, questioned. Besides the great discoveries of the past, present, and future—the ones concerning space and the microscopic—creation in science, technology, and politics interest me as much as artistic creation. But to touch form, to transform ordinary conventional form, is a risk that we shouldn’t underestimate. If, as an artist, you realize you have this privilege, it’s quite difficult to take. It’s a poisoned privilege. I had a gift. Pondering the question of the gift is quite vertiginous for someone with a keen social and political consciousness.
Noura Wedell is a writer, scholar, translator, and an editor for Semiotext(e). She edited Investigations: the Expanded Field of Writing in the Works of Robert Morris and has translated six books, among which are theoretical texts by Toni Negri and Guy Hocquenghem, and two autobiographical novels by Pierre Guyotat. Her book of poetry, Odd Directions, was published in 2009.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee