The Wrath of Pierre Guyotat
Sometime before seven in the morning in January 2010, I was stretched out full-length on a tubular bank of seats at Bordeaux airport, waiting for a flight to Lyon. From Lyon I would be picked up and driven deep into the foothills of the Alps to the monastery where I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life. Lying there, I held a tattered copy of Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth up and over my face to keep the acid white airport light from burning my corneas and revealing my fears. And I read:
“In fact, B once thought he wanted to be like Guyotat in days gone by, when as a young man he was reading Guyotat’s work. That bald, massive individual, Pierre Guyotat, ready to take on all comers and eat them alive in the darkness of an attic room.”
I had no idea who Guyotat was, but the image of a shaved muscular presence devouring everything in its path made me feel heroic. In my solitude that’s the kind of monk I’ll be, I thought, bald and slaying demons.
I left the monastery a few years later, and after some time getting my bearings in a world in which smartphones had apparently been invented overnight, I found one of Guyotat’s books in a crumbling bookstore near the Old Port in Marseille. It was Tomb for Five Hundred Thousand Soldiers. A few hours later I was sitting with my feet in the turquoise slush of the Mediterranean, staring out onto the brooding limestone of the Château d’If where nearly two centuries before the Count of Monte Cristo had plotted his dark revenge, and began to read (all translations are my own):
In that time, the war engulfed Ecbatana. Many slaves escaped, attached themselves to the victors, but when they wanted to make them talk about the Resistance, the slaves refused to give up the names of their former masters, and so fell into an even greater servitude. Ecbatana was then the most vast capital of the West: it had been built on fifteen kilometers of coastline. Each day, the beaches below the coastal boulevard were covered with the corpses of young resistants shot by the marine guards and unloaded during the night. The victors had won with ease: they took a city that had forsaken its gods.
That night, I checked-in to a hotel by the train station, and on sheets pockmarked by the feasting of bedbugs, I read by a halogen bulb until dawn:
A child moves in me since morning, feel. It is the last-born in the world, and a rat made it… Kment gets on his knees facing Giauhare, Giauhare facing Kment. Fists to the ground, they kiss on the knees, on the genitals, on the forehead.
That’s how it ends. Six hundred pages nominally about the French war in Algeria (as Ulysses is nominally about the petty bourgeoisie in Dublin), divided into seven songs of varying length. Songs of rape (of men, of women, of children, of slaves), and songs of bestiality, coprophilia, and evisceration, sung by soldiers, slaves, and prostitutes in a world convulsed by sun, blood, semen, and rats.
Reading has always been as important to me as breathing. On that morning in Marseille I left the book on the dirty bed the way one leaves a murder weapon, and returned home under a cloud of disconsolate grief. I knew more than I wanted to. It was not a sense of lost innocence, so much as the terrible understanding that my innocence had never existed to begin with. Graham Greene once commented that he was glad to have read War and Peace late in life or he wouldn’t have written a thing. Had I read Tomb for Five Hundred Thousand Soldiers earlier, I might have stopped reading.
Guyotat was just twenty-five when he wrote Tomb. Its publication in 1967 saw the surrealist anthropologist Michel Leiris rushing to give a copy to his friend Pablo Picasso and a French general forbidding his troops from reading it. Three years later, Guyotat’s next book Eden, Eden, Eden (1970) was out for a month before the Ministry of the Interior banned it, despite a petition signed by nearly every major French intellectual of the period, from Roland Barthes and Simone de Beauvoir to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Future president François Mitterand defended it in the National Assembly and then president Georges Pompidou sent a note of protest to his minister. These efforts came to nothing and the ban lasted until 1981. Meanwhile, Guyotat kept on writing. His last published work, Idiocy, appeared in 2018 and won the prestigious Prix Médicis. He died in February 2020 at the age of eighty.
We come to Guyotat the way we come to the worst things in our lives—death, loss, anxiety, illness. But reading him is not shocking in the way that reading the Marquis de Sade or Jean Genet is shocking. After all, theirs was simply the rather conventional project of extending the boundaries of moral acceptability, something which the more genteel Freud did far better. Indeed, the notion of ‘morality’ hardly ever comes up in the numerous interviews Guyotat gave throughout his life. He is not interested in reshaping the categories of good and evil, nor in the Nietzschean impulse to go beyond them. There is no self to be liberated, and literature is not catharsis. For Guyotat, the self must be destroyed. In his vision, literature is the hammer, the world the anvil, and our meticulous humanity lies in-between. He wants to show us the world as it is, and that means showing us everything in it. I recall one of the survivors in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah who is brought back to Chełmno and among the gently swaying trees, muses: “even when the bodies were burning it was this calm, this beautiful.” Reading Guyotat doesn’t shock us or even shame us; it makes us into survivors horrified by the beauty before us.
In Coma (2006), a memoir of depression that makes Styron’s Darkness Visible look like notes from a cocktail party, Guyotat writes:
“It’s what I am, before, that matters, the after is not important: human conception, birth, work. Which is to say: nothing, or DNA scattered in the world or the design of a god… What I add to the embryo is perhaps not of this world.”
And in an interview a few years earlier, speaking of his work as a whole, he says:
“It is a full scale evacuation of the bourgeois universe, with its psychology of love, criminality, and politics, and the bodies that come from this psychology and this culture; there is hardly anything except God and Christ that remains in place.”
Guyotat is ontological, not moral, but in a way that even the deftly subverted Catholic metaphysics of someone like Georges Bataille cannot mirror (indeed, Guyotat denied all the obvious antecedents we would like to tie him to). It makes sense, then, when he claims that his two greatest artistic influences (Guyotat always said he was an artist, not a writer; he created works, not books) were Charlie Chaplin and the Bible. The connection with Chaplin (who we should remember was a gleeful reader of Schopenhauer) is easy to explain. Chaplin’s art depends on total semiotic mastery, a control of all primitive language anterior to words. Chaplin is the formal model for Guyotat’s reaching back beyond the creation of our social selves, to this before that is the picture of the world without us, without all the weird and often sinister (im)material culture (instant messages, cafetières, political affiliations, credit cards, etc.) that binds each of us to our life sentences as individuals.
But what about the Bible? It is true that Guyotat was raised in the comfortable respectability of post-war bourgeois France in which Christianity was integral. His father, whom he idealized, was a country doctor. At twelve he dreamed of becoming a priest. It is also true that during the infamous lecture he gave in 1972 at Cerisy-la-Salle entitled “The Language of the Body”, he associated his childhood experiences of learning how to write with learning how to masturbate. The thing is, we can’t resolve this contradiction by appealing to a narrative of revolt. The good Catholic boy did not turn bad. Consider instead that Cain slew Abel, Lot had drunken sex with both his daughters, and King David sent Uriah to his death and stole his wife. The good life of Jesus was rewarded with execution. In the Bible, the sacred is always enacted through violence, kings are appointed to die, and prophets remain unheard. Lives are destroyed, cities and nations are destroyed. And in the end, as St. John promises in the Apocalypse, all will be destroyed. For Guyotat, the Bible is the book that precedes all literature. It is the story of the making of the liminal world, in which the threat of extinction by wrath or inscrutable divine judgement makes every human act merely provisional.
It is tempting and all too facile to classify Guyotat as a nihilist, a literary Max Stirner, an existential ruffian the way Bolaño presents him, ready to destroy the world and dance among the ruins. It is only now, after years of reading and thinking about him, that I can say with certainty that this is wrong. In what is probably his masterpiece, Progenies (2000), eight hundred pages of deconstructed French which the few critics who have tried to discuss it have conspicuously done without citations, Guyotat writes (my translation is in ‘reconstructed’ English):
in my teeth I crunch on, holding on with my nails, scales, nerves, blood, marrow, sap, milk, flour, salt, fur, tail, teeth, rat flesh inside outside, keep going till the afternoon our canteen staff first
to fill our asses, our bellies, after — keep going
until midnight, the time we ravage the woman our master
we vomit her debauchery on the straw to ravage her vagina
in our greatest lives we want to sleep inside it
Notice the tense. Most often Guyotat writes in the present indicative. He writes about what is, not what was or will be, a history of the present in which time has no meaning. Notice the world that is not our world. The universe of Progenies is populated by males, females, and whores (who possess no gender and are not human). Nearly all are nourished by rat flesh and the intimacy of sex is replaced by the miserable necessity of rape. What we probably don’t notice (and can’t notice in translation) is the musicality of these austere strings of nouns and verbs, their incantatory flow which is heard so readily, so tenderly, in the audio recordings Guyotat himself made of his work.
Listening to Guyotat’s voice as he reads Progenies, now hushed, now erupting in rushes of angry breath that pulverizes syllables and casts us into a storm of pure consonantal sound, we are reminded once and for all that language is first intended to be spoken, and that words are not the dead citizens of texts intended for the false resurrections of literary theory. This language is beautiful, and not in spite of but because it speaks to us of the things we don’t want to hear. Just like Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, which is no less beautiful because it is a picture of Hell, Guyotat uses language to paint the faint nimbus be believes crowns the head of each being from whom everything has been taken.
It would be excessive to claim that Guyotat is entirely sui generis, and Antonin Artaud is one clear if not explicitly acknowledged precursor. Like Artaud, Guyotat was fascinated by cruelty. But unlike him, he doesn’t stop there. In a late interview conducted scarcely a year before his death, he confesses he has always been haunted by the idea of saints: “The great saints are those who have gone toward foulness. They have touched it, they have healed it.”
We can mistake Guyotat’s meaning here. Whatever we might want to believe, he is not suggesting that he’s a saint, or that literature is about embracing existence in all its ugliness and healing it. The story does not end so tidily. Sainthood is above all about selflessness, getting so close to something that the line separating being from becoming is drawn in water. Guyotat’s art is not about destroying the world or celebrating its cruelty, but about turning the world, and we its denizens, into language. Language can unmake and remake us. It can rip our culture, our belief, and our judgment out of our minds and put blood back in our veins and speech back in our mouths. This is what Guyotat does. His broken prose returns us to the broken bodies we have lost.
As for the prospect of any future healing, his work is agnostic. But what it proclaims with devastating certainty is that you can’t heal what you pretend isn’t there. Guyotat’s wrath bears down on our anodyne culture in its denial of our bodies, bodies that are fundamentally constituted by and composed of sex and violence (just like in the Bible). What literature says beyond that is dishonest. The job of the writer is to pattern the elegant lies we tell ourselves. The unenviable job of the artist is to tell the truth.
Reading Guyotat makes it hard to sleep at night. His heroes and villains don’t exist (because without morality they can’t). His characters are rarely more definite than a name or the color of a shirt. And then there is the violence that roars in our ears through endless pages of unforgiving density. In France, he won most of the important literary prizes but he is not taught in universities and my guess is that for the few who have heard of him, he is admired more than he is read. In English there are a few translations, a few articles strewn across a few decades of obscure journals. There is no legacy to speak of, except that of notoriety which is just a polite form of condemnation. This would come as no surprise to Guyotat. In Explications (2000) he said:
“I work all the time. I work from morning till night. Something will come out, one day or another. I am condemned to succeed, that is, to arrive at the vision of something. Because I will have sacrificed everything for this, almost everything. It has to repay me.”
For Pierre Guyotat, literature was a matter of life and death. Now that he is dead, the best eulogy we can offer him is the reluctant admission not that he gave his life for literature, but that it killed him. ♦
Tobias Freeman teaches philosophy in the south of France.