June/July/Aug 2014

The Pleasure of the Text

Hervé Guibert's unbridled eroticism

Wayne Koestenbaum


In a somber essay I wrote in 1989 and haven’t reread in twenty-five years, a piece whose heavyhearted title was “Speaking in the Shadow of AIDS,” I concluded: “The motive behind this brief inquiry into AIDS and language has been an attempt, perhaps immodest, to mold words into something stainless. AIDS has made me watch my speech, as if my words were a second, more easily monitored body, less liable than the first to the whimsy of a virus. . . . Bodies have always wanted only one thing, to be aimless: or so I say, knowing that bodies, and always, and aimless, are among the most seductive, and the most outdated, of the several rhetorics I must soon discard.” I still haven’t discarded those rhetorics. When I wrote these words, I hadn’t yet heard of Hervé Guibert, the French novelist, memoirist, critic, and photographer who would die of AIDS in 1991, at the age of thirty-six. I regret my ignorance. Now, after reading his posthumously published journals, finally translated into English by the esteemed Nathanaël and published by Nightboat Books (a press notable for having given us the collected poems of Tim Dlugos), Guibert’s lifework looms before me not merely as what Keats called (describing the Elgin Marbles) the “shadow of a magnitude,” but as the magnitude itself, sans shadow.

I might as well mention some impediments. I can’t write about Guibert without mentioning his beautiful face: His literary greatness is tied, Laocoön style, to his attractiveness. I can’t write about Guibert without noting the historical coincidence that he’s dead and I’m not: He was born only three years before me. And I can’t objectively evaluate the work of a writer I take personally and envy, though I can’t entirely wish to trade places with a man—however much he qualifies as an idealizable hyacinth—who died so young.

Must I admit impediments—or, as Francis Ponge put it, “open a notebook”—to write a simple essay? No essay is ever simple. Listen to Ponge: “I never choose the easiest subjects; that’s why I choose the mimosa. And since it’s a very difficult subject, I must open a notebook.”

Time to plunge into the explanatory task. End of notebook.

Genet’s work might have taught the young Guibert to connect violence and desire, or maybe the wunderkind figured it out for himself. With or without tutelage, he quickly discovered how to worship a beautiful body while also wishing to despoil it. Punctures and holes gave him literary energy; gold-panner, he remapped the male body (not famous for its holes) as a gap-ridden and therefore ontologically profound locale. To acknowledge plural orifices is to acquire, if not agency, then majesty, complexity, cavernousness, tingle, introspection, enigma. And therefore Guibert (with Guy Hocquenghem, Michel Foucault, Tony Duvert, Dennis Cooper, Pierre Guyotat) sought to write hole-conscious fiction and theory, a prose eager for rifts in maleness wherever those rifts could be found.

Guibert’s journals, The Mausoleum of Lovers, form a vast arena of such holes—an operating theater, a humming phalanstery; filled, yes, with jetting, penetration, jacking off, and with anuses that are distinctly male—but also writing these hot zones in time and not as monolithic forces, writing these pricks and surges of desire as mistakes, falls from grace, and narrative absences. Where story falls apart, Guibert’s journal begins; where an erection happens, writing becomes futile but also gains the energy to articulate its own futility. Erection—occasion for journal-writing—announces not a triumphant arrival but an aporia, a goof, a misprision, a chance to stumble into impossible, irresolute speech.

Guibert became famous in France in 1990 when he published a roman à clef about Foucault’s death, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. (This book’s notoriety seemed to center on Foucault’s scandal, not on Guibert’s artistry, as if the younger novelist needed the sage philosopher’s authorization to register on the media’s map.) Guibert published many short, svelte books that straddle the line between memoir and novel (including My Parents, Blindsight, and The Gangsters), but every project took root in his notebooks, a hive of errant record-keeping, with family resemblances to such untidy masterpieces as Gide’s and Thoreau’s journals, Valéry’s Cahiers, and Lichtenberg’s Waste Books. Guibert’s published work, even at its most elegant and stylized, retains the casual intimacy of his journals. He valued the diary, as genre, not because it had the potential to be supremely honed but because it wrote time and wrote body accurately, wrote body as it actually occurred, nonmonumentally, in time. Plotless, accidental, the journals exceed authorial jurisdiction; they do not reduce to a clear, univocal intention. Gestated originally for private purposes, they are not wholly aimed toward reader, publication, or closure.

An unbridled, impatiently probing eroticism gives heat to Guibert’s clock-haunted Mausoleum. What he eventually suffered, and what killed him, took place in time, and had a relation to his sexuality. Let me put it more “safely”: The discourses engulfing AIDS were precisely the languages of wound—of contamination, filth, and mistake—that he’d already been plumbing and relishing, vocabularies he obtained from Genet, from the données of the French language, from Barthes and Foucault, from looking in the mirror, from his camera, from pornography, from his crazy great-aunts, from his mother who wiped his bottom until he was thirteen years old, from his father who punched him in the jaw. The rhetorics of wound and of abjection that nourished him and that formed the nucleus of his sexual imaginaire were then drowned out and ventriloquized by the mythologies of AIDS; Guibert already spoke the lingo of Wilde’s Dorian Gray before AIDS rewrote Wilde and took him on as its untimely echo. Guibert investigated sexuality; a private eye, working for no government, he sleuthed with a rare ferocity and candor. Premature death cut off the investigation.

Enfant terrible, Guibert in his journal took on the project of writing sexuality in time—the project of writing sexuality as time—at a historical moment when the time-bound nature of sexuality underwent a Grand Guignol twist, a contortion that forced Guibert to play sacrificed subject as well as documentarian and theorizer. Nonetheless, the journals rarely mention AIDS by name; we’re stuck, reading Guibert, within a sexual reckoning in which AIDS silently serves as dreaded, detested curtain. He attempts to conquer time by anatomizing orgasm’s prequels and sequels: “Then I remember how I came, watching him jerk off, naked, from afar, while crying (but all of this is unmentionable).” Eroticism’s unspeakability thrives—or finds brief staging—within parentheses.

Sexual, wounded, hole-ridden, philosophical, the pages of his journals drip with ontology—so much Dasein he can’t stuff his sentences back into their undies. Guibert’s clauses, groomed and ungroomed, bring jacking off or being jacked off into propinquity with the Crucifixion and other emblems of sacred, unbearable duration: “I am licking icons (the thought arrived while coming alone last night).” Dead art gives him a boner: “A strange thing happens, as soon as I enter a museum, infallibly, I become hard. . . . I harden among all those dead faces.” Desire instigates ossification and reification: The “I” stiffens. No way to photograph without understanding astonishment; no way to write (or publish) a sentence without surrendering to erotic marmorealization, an unmelting, Madame Tussaud–style knowledge that aches.

Click to enlarge

A self-portrait by Hervé Guibert, 1989.

Filth is Guibert’s passport to infinity. Filth, as literary terrain, belongs to de Sade, but Guibert reroutes s/m through the pastoral landscape of religious interiority, as if ghosted by hungry Simone Weil, or by Wilde’s scarified, Christological denouement. (To skeptics, such spirituality might seem papier-mâché, but I’m a believer.) Guibert sees a cute young man at a party and “instead of imagining his sex or his torso or the taste of his tongue, in spite of myself it’s his excrement I see, inside his intestines.” In Guibert’s universe, shit may be scary, but it possesses the indisputable, definition-proof aura of Dickinson’s “Circumference.”

To have a cock is to wish to destroy the cock; “having” a cock, not a secure position, causes consciousness to teeter, tumble, and misplace itself. “I would like to chisel bits of grease out of my skin, disembowel myself, open my stomach and void myself.” Sex unwrites a body’s wish to remain composed: “On my way home, I want to scald my cock.” Another characteristic sentiment: “If I fuck him, if I decide to fuck him, it’s first to annihilate him.” No simple sadism here, no simple equation of fucking and killing, of penetrating and violating—instead, the wish to fuck or to be fucked, like the experience of “having” a cock or of only semi-having a “cock,” is a sensation (or a memory cathedral) of being voided, chiseled, scalded, disemboweled. Is this consciousness a queer privilege? Is it shamanistic? Is it in fact not trans or queer or anything of the sort, but simply poetic? “I am forced to concede that I adore wounds,” writes Guibert (author of the screenplay for Patrice Chéreau’s film L’homme blessé), after HIV has already made its presence felt in the world.

Though Guibert, like Gide, is no stranger to melodrama, nor to the tendrils of self-pity and self-stylization that drape the thespian face, The Mausoleum of Lovers doesn’t sugarcoat desire. Indeed, when describing his sexuality, Guibert wishes to dispense with veils, including the screens and go-betweens posed by language itself. As an adolescent he put his own hard cock over a glossy picture of an actor (Hiram Keller) from Fellini’s Satyricon; like Genet’s narrator at the conclusion of Our Lady of the Flowers (where a prick dovetails with its penciled outline), Guibert wanted to shove his body directly into words and images, without polite filter. He sought a prose as direct, voracious, and soul-capturing as photography. Visually oriented, process-centered, he hoped at the end of his short life to write a “treatise on drawing.” Journal-keeping, as he practiced it, shared drawing’s fluent, linear, accident-prone, time-scarred nature: “(I feel as though I’m writing a book when the writing is something like drawing on the pages.)” You prove a book’s veracity, Guibert suggests, not by its content but by the sensations you experience while writing it. The writer, not the reader, knows best.

Fathers are depressing but necessary and sometimes sexually alluring; fathers, and father substitutes, and ghost fathers, appear often in Guibert’s journal, as do mothers, who are also depressing but necessary and sometimes sexually alluring. “T. licks my ass while I’m talking to my father on the telephone” is one way to deal with fathers and their necessity. Another way to deal with fathers is to record nuggets like the following: “My father ate my snot.” An innovative approach to nuclear-family ecology! His mother, who tried to have a miscarriage when she was pregnant with Hervé, later confesses to him, “I would like so much to be lying on your bed, motionless, without saying a word, so as not to bother you, while you are writing in the next room.” His mother and his father dwell inside Hervé’s writing, even when he tries to expectorate or exile them from it.

A born diarist, Guibert regarded the genre of “novel” with a fatigued, valedictory suspicion: “It is perhaps preferable to circle around the idea of the novel, to dream it, like in Gide’s Marshlands, and to botch it, rather than succeed, since the successful novel is perhaps a very banal form of writing.” He wants writing to be a form of physical adventure—a leap, a plunge, a way to befriend the abyss: “I would like one day to throw myself into a narrative that would be but an event of writing, without a story, and without boredom, a true adventure. . . . The other day I wrote that it was necessary to surrender to pure events of writing (just as the most pure photos are pure events of light).” What is a pure event of writing? Certain French thinkers called it “writing the body,” a phrase that doesn’t get sung a lot these days, though I hope that Guibert’s journal will bring this philosophically inclined subset of body-smeared literature back into prominence. What else is there to write but the body? “Pains in my left eye where it seemed I let a bit of semen penetrate by rubbing my eyes after having jerked off . . .” As in Monique Wittig’s pronoun-slashed The Lesbian Body, every organ within Guibert’s literary body intramurally huddles with its mates; his journal invents a body where “semen” and “left eye” belong to each other, even if their spunky wedlock causes distress.

Maybe no passage in the journals is more heartbreaking and operatic (time-shattering, arrested, polyvocal, Orphean in its compulsion to move forward while looking backward) than Guibert’s description of sex’s proximity to death:

T. and I had started fucking again, but he had to go to his appointment at the ophthalmologist’s. He returns saying it isn’t a conjunctivitis, but a white veil over the eye, he says that it must be a manifestation of AIDS, that he’s going to go blind, I would like to dissolve on the spot; we try to continue to fuck anyway, it’s dreadfully sad, I have the impression that we are adrift between our lives and our deaths, planted deep in my ass, he makes me come looking me in the eyes, it’s too sublime a look, too rending, both eternal and threatened by eternity, I block the sob in my throat passing it off as a sigh of relaxation.

This brutally fluid interlude is remarkable for its punctuation and its lack of punctuation, its ambivalent commas, its wish to thread together life and death, fucking and sightlessness, sobbing and relaxing, writing and enduring, transcription and epitaph, documentary and poetry.

Transparency is Guibert’s method; transparency—his relatively unadorned language, which combs its hair but doesn’t disguise the disorders of the underlying scalp—perhaps explains why he has not been more frequently translated into English, as if a literature that purported to be see-through couldn’t also claim opacity. In 1991, Atheneum published To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life; in 1996, Sun and Moon released Guibert’s treatise on photography, Ghost Image, reprinted this year by the University of Chicago Press. (In Ghost Image, whose approach to analysis is gossamer récit, Guibert recounted a memorable faux pas. He wrote to Barthes and asked to photograph him and his mother, but received no answer. When Hervé telephoned to ask “if he had in fact received my letter,” Roland said, “Haven’t you heard? Maman died ten days ago . . .”)

Why has no thoughtful publisher translated and published all of Guibert’s works, in trim editions, each cover graced with his seraphic image? Literary culture in the United States—even at its most adventurous—hasn’t got Guibert’s message, perhaps because his diaristic works emphasize sex and death and an unclassifiably perverted subjectivity, alternately raging and depressed, and perhaps because he clothes his seamy burden in a language unadorned, pellucid, provisional, and loosely constructed. To recirculate Guibert would serve to honor and resuscitate a project that Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz and Jack Smith and Jimmy De Sana and Mark Morrisroe and Félix González-Torres and Paul Thek (and I am culpable for leaving out a thousand other names) also pursued, a cross-personal project that sometimes achieved commercial or media visibility but that mostly fell through the cracks because its practitioners died too soon or left their materials in forms and genres either too perishable or too messy or too bizarre for easy repackaging. To get Guibert’s full message, which isn’t light-years apart from Susan Sontag’s and Frank O’Hara’s New York–based credos (pay attention, live as variously as possible) but that chose for its transmission not the lyric or the essay but the autofiction, the fragmentary self-articulation, casual as a snapshot, would involve questioning straitened notions of what constitutes a polished piece of writing, or a life’s work, or an autobiography, or a sexuality, or a successful venture—and learning, instead, to appreciate the cadences of catastrophe, of self-excavating improvisation, and of unknowingness. Futility and botched execution are the immortal matter of Guibert’s method. Futility and botched execution—combined, in Guibert’s work, with finesse, concision, and a heavy dose of negative capability, which includes curiosity about the worst things that can befall a body—are undying aesthetic and spiritual values, worth cherishing in any literature we dare to call our own.

(I began this essay in Baton Rouge. I revised it in New York. I finished it in Miami.)

Wayne Koestenbaum's most recent book is My 1980s & Other Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013).

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