“Pierre Guyotat: The Matter of Writing“; by Stephen Barber

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PIERRE GUYOTAT: THE MATTER OF WRITING

In 1969, the French literary journal Tel Quel published an extract from Pierre Guyotat’s work in progress, Eden, Eden, Eden, under the title Bordels of Butchery. After the book’s publication in 1970, it was subjected to governmental censorship in France, was reviled by large sections of the Parisian literary establishment, and became one of the great divisive scandals of postwar French writing. The participants of Tel Quel, in collaboration with supporters and associates of Guyotat, mounted a defence of the book. Michel Foucault wrote: ‘Guyotat has written a book in a language of startling innovation. I have never read anything like it in any stream of literature. No-one has ever spoken as he speaks here.’

Documents and interviews relating to this protest against the censorship of Guyotat’s work were published in a volume which he entitled Forbidden Literature. I aim here to explore how the language of Eden, Eden, Eden generated such institutional and individual vitriol; to stress the role of Tel Quel in making manifest the language of the novel; and to relate Guyotat’s language to the configuration of contemporary Europe, and the pressures operating in any creative work brought into existence within the extreme conditions for which Guyotat’s own work provides prescience and testimony.

Guyotat’s 1988 text Wanted Female was conceived while he was jogging on a beach in Santa Monica, during a stay in California where he was engaged in a collaboration with the artist Sam Francis. Guyotat saw a junkie girl running down the beach to buy crack from her dealer, and the image for the text was sprung: a girl is caught inside the cheek of the bestial narrator of the text, along with six macerated sexes. The disciplined rhythm of Wanted Female is that of the process of running, its trajectory jump-cut by invasive imageries, until the running of the text is suspended and all that remains are the ashes of the narrator, grabbed and gathered by the junkie girl into a sack, open and noxious. By contrast, the speed of Eden, Eden, Eden is that of an atrocious headlong rush into obscenity, conducted at breakneck intensity, disciplined to the last syllable. The text is not left to breathe, and it constricts and exhausts the reader in an adrenalised pulse of text, whose final release and exhalation comes with the final spasm of the great malignant orgasm which the entire book constitutes. No space exists in the text for readers to pacify themselves, to focus and thereby rest the eyes. The onrush of text is itself an ocular violation. Eden, Eden, Eden is a text that compels the eye, physically, into its implosive momentum, that accelerates incessantly at the reader. In an interview published in Tel Quel, Guyotat spoke of how the text of Eden, Eden, Eden terminates at the same site where his camper van had finally broken down, in the steppes around the border between Algeria and Niger, during his obsessional travels around the area. He comments: ‘I write like I travel – I write like I drive, even.’ The brutality of raw speed is the primary element in the transmission of the matter of writing.

Guyotat has written that his work of the early 1980s, as yet unpublished, Stories of Samora Machel, makes up what he calls ‘the total prostitutional experience’. Eden, Eden, Eden consists of the fragmentation of prostitution. The book forms the relentless enumeration of an innumerable series of sex acts performed between prostitute boys and manual salaried workers in a desert brothel in Algeria. The final section of the book, compacting the detail of fauna with the detail of sex acts between a group of nomadic human beings and animals, takes place on a steppe in northern Niger. The text is initiated in warfare, with multiple acts of violence, rape and massacre perpetrated by marauding French troops, in a colonial conflict for which the unspoken index is the Algerian war of liberation, previously incised by Guyotat in his first celebrated novel, Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers. Each fragment of the sex acts performed by Guyotat’s prostitute boys, Wazzag and Khamssieh, is saturated by the murderous opening of the text, which determines that every act of lust is read – indelibly, with vicious clarity – through the medium of a hanging pall of blood. The salaried sexual act doubles the salaried act of exploitation undergone by the drillers, workers and butchers who enter the arena of prostitution. And the regime of sex is doubled by the regime of killing.

At the time of the writing of Eden, Eden, Eden and the appearance of Bordels of Butchery in Tel Quel, Guyotat had not yet completely formulated his project of recreating what he calls ‘the matter of writing’, a project that consumes him to the present day. That project was most intensively developed in the aftermath of the scandal over Eden, Eden, Eden, in the years from 1971, when Guyotat was closely aligned with the French Communist Party, to 1975, when he began to inject heroin for the first time and published his most dense, syntactically damaged and elided work: a novel entitled Prostitution. The writings which Guyotat worked on in those years are what he calls ‘liberated texts’. The act of creation that produced Eden, Eden, Eden is the primary pivot upon which that work, done under the skin of the French language, intricately grates in all its originality. Since Guyotat has stated that the origin of the whole system of literature has to be attacked, the crucial question is to formulate another, oppositional origin: that of the matter of writing, at the site where it cuts away from a stultified system – and then to locate Eden, Eden, Eden within the process which that reinvented origin generates. As Guyotat states in a text of the early 1970s, The Language of the Body, delivered at a conference on the work of Artaud, his work began in secrecy as a child, with vital corporeal matters combined in language.

He recalls how he wrote incessantly from an early age, masturbating constantly with one hand while he wrote with his other hand. The matter of language originates in obsession, in the intensity of fluidic trajectories and mixings, with only a jagged set of fragments from that work being openly presented to the reader’s eye – from the great mass of Guyotat’s writing, only a relatively small volume of his textual ‘ejaculation’ has ever been presented to the public eye, with the remainder either being lost in the jet of its trajectory, or retained in the body of work that he has determinedly kept for himself. (However, Guyotat’s latent work is accessible, stored at the IMEC literary research centre in Paris in its manuscript form, and can be sought out there.)

The matter of writing begins in expulsion and incorporation. In a sense, Eden, Eden, Eden is the perfect book for contemporary Europe, which is also, in its malignancy, dominated by those twin compulsions. The gestation of Eden, Eden, Eden involved a refusal of Europe and its eventual re-incorporation in a transformed state. In the period after the publication of Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, Guyotat left Europe and returned to the now-liberated Algeria, and travelled back and forth through the desert and mountainous regions in the south of the country, meticulously photographing and filming the landscape and nomadic people, making notes towards the dispossession of language – the dispossession of the French language from itself – that his writing of Eden, Eden, Eden would project. The book was then written in a sudden burst of six months in a concrete highrise in the suburbs of southern Paris, in the winter following the May 1968 events in the city. The construction of the matter of writing subsumes the protracted process of gazing, travelling and noting, into the abrupt intensity of the executed text. This process of oscillation, between contemplation and execution, at work in Guyotat’s writing, forms part of the greatest of all of the contradictions of representation: between repetition and a unique projection or demonstration. Roland Barthes wrote in his preface to Eden, Eden, Eden of how the ‘unit of the phrase’ in Guyotat’s language is endlessly brought to bear, compulsively and relentlessly, against the preoccupations of the text. The substance of the subject matter is never attained, never fulfilled. The uniqueness of the language in Eden, Eden, Eden, which Michel Foucault emphasized, remains so only through its sustaining, its determined rhythm of repetition.

Since the text visually enacts an ocular violation, the impact upon the reader of that intense repetition constitutes a concurrent mental violation of the most challenging kind: it aims at the barrier between language and the human body. In the last stages of the work of Artaud, this terminal contradiction, between repetition and uniqueness, is also vitally at stake. After giving what would be his final performance, at the Galerie Pierre in Paris on 18 July 1947, Artaud wrote about the language of gestures and blows which he had formulated and had attempted to demonstrate to his audience, but which had finally eluded him, in terms of the kind of immediacy of repetition that he wanted to project.

Artaud commented: ‘I would have had to shit blood through my navel to arrive at what I want./For example, three quarters of an hour’s beating with a poker on the same spot.’ The diverse preoccupations of the notes which Artaud made for his final work, the banned recording for radio To have done with the judgement of god, also ultimately amass around this concern to insistently demonstrate the unique, while at the same time refusing the repetitive nature of representation as integrally and maliciously social. The intentional strategy of repetition in Guyotat’s Eden, Eden, Eden is of a parallel order, in its exploration of the tension between the sustained and the immediate in language, working as a direct counterpart to the corporeal processes of resistance and creation.

The matter of writing is ultimately capable of bringing abstraction, and even the integral repetition of language itself, to its end, to its silencing. In retrospect, Guyotat views his alliance with Tel Quel as one which assisted in, and added to, the journal’s project of expelling abstraction from the contemporary world, and of focusing instead on the immediately gestural and physical. In the historical scope and resonance of Guyotat’s work, the two overriding elements to be discerned are, firstly, what he calls ‘the revolt against abstraction‘, and, secondly, the permanent struggle with the power of repetition. Long before the rise of fundamentalism in Algeria in 1991, Guyotat had warned that the systematic abstraction of religion, into a movement of mass terror, on a sustained scale, was the greatest danger for the North African countries. It’s certainly the case that one of the great fallacies about European history, in the second half of the twentieth century, was that the genocide enacted in the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War would not be repeated. At least in Britain, the television imageries of Omarska in the summer of 1992 constituted a disabusal of that fallacy about the power of repetition. Similarly, the extermination of one hundred thousand Kurdish and Iraqi conscript soldiers, by European and North American weapons technology, in the deserts of southern Iraq in February 1991, resuscitated the atrocious dynamics of power that had animated the particular conflict – that of Algeria – which initiates the language of Guyotat’s Eden, Eden, Eden and of Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers. The latter book is explicitly dedicated by Guyotat to his uncle, Hubert, arrested for resistance activities and killed in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, at Oranienburg in northern Germany, in 1943. Guyotat has written: ‘My whole imaginary system is an allusion to the concentrational system.’ The twin forces of abstraction and repetition are eminently palatable and consumable in the contemporary media. And, decades on from Eden, Eden, Eden, Guyotat’s current work, Progenitures, still confronts and refuses abstraction, and is crucially impelled by an incessant, locked fury at repetition. Eden, Eden, Eden is demonstrative and revelatory in its insights into the crucial and determining matters of sex, language and the human body, and the liberating pressure of the act of writing is maximal when placed intimately against the horror of the forbidden. The Tamacheck text which opens Eden, Eden, Eden reads: ‘And now, we are no longer slaves.’

The support which Tel Quel gave to Guyotat and his projects, at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, certainly formed a factor in the transformation of censorship, and the transformation of the forbidden itself, in contemporary France.  The forbidden is an entirely different material now to what it was at the time of the censorship of Guyotat’s work in 1970, though in many ways its operation remains as virulent and immovable as ever. The focus of censorship has been recast in the intervening decades, and the strategies of censorship have evolved too, in terms both of their sophistication and their brutality. Guyotat writes: ‘Censorship is condemned to have much more work with my new texts than with the first ones.’ The fact of refusing censorship – refusing its central operation of suppressing an upheaval in re-imagining sex and the human body, in re-imagining language – is enduringly valuable. The traces of that process of resistance are marked in the survival of Eden, Eden, Eden and in the role of Tel Quel in that survival.

The question of censorship is one that Guyotat has continued to confront: in his defence, in the newspaper Libération, in 1994, of Jacques Henric’s novel Unending Adorations, and in his defence too of Salman Rushdie and his novel The Satanic Verses. From Guyotat’s first words, the will to avoid the erotic, to embrace the pornographic, has been pronounced. The pornographic is placed clearly in Guyotat’s work in the direction of what disturbs, deranges and liberates the limits of the body, of what sensationally overturns and also transfixes the eye, of what falls irrevocably into the raw substance of the body, and of what castigates the superficial imageries of a bogus society.

Guyotat has commented: ‘Pornography is certainly more beautiful than eroticism. I say three cheers for pornography!’. The intervening ground between Guyotat’s pornographic realignment of language in Eden, Eden, Eden, and the ‘pornography’ of censorship itself (in relation to a book accused by the French government of being pornographic, in the years between 1970 and 1981), is a terrain of silence: a terrain which Guyotat has explored to the point where his silence alone has proved atrociously articulate. If writers are only writers when they publish their work, then that presence of silence, together with his periods of retraction from society, have been determining in Guyotat’s work. He has interrogated the limitations and veracity of the writer’s identity with searching violence. Guyotat wrote about the origins of his novel The Book: ‘At the same time that I decide never again to publish, reinforced by my refusal of the designation ‘’writer’’, these voices [of mine] disappear into what I no longer call writings, but matter.’ Silence and obscenity are equally at the heart of Guyotat’s matter of writing. The oscillation between the forced silence of censorship, and the intentional silence of extreme creativity, is initiated from fury and from aberration. It is simultaneously the silence of humiliation and of reaction, the silence of degradation and of liberation. Together, those silences form the unique texture of Guyotat’s matter of writing.

The text of Eden, Eden, Eden is ferociously lit and coloured. It is a text that is concurrently an image in space, and an image in which no time is ever lost: the movement between prostitutional act to act is instantaneous, utterly without temporal gaps. Guyotat has commented that he always possesses a pictorial and visual, rather than linguistic, sense of what he is doing. In the act of writing, it is the image which causes an initiatory detonation in the movement and the abrupt choreography of language. As in the manuscript notebooks of Artaud, the border between image and text in Eden, Eden, Eden is summarily negated by the creative act which incorporates the visual and the textual, transforming them into a corporeal and assaultive matter. And finally, the text of Eden, Eden, Eden is a language of the body. For Guyotat, the responsibility to write is paramount, as an act of resistance and even of revolution – a configuration of revolution which has its momentary, but momentous, intersection with the trajectory of Tel Quel. At the same time, the origin of that responsibility to write is exterior and autonomous to all of the forms which enclose it, including the collective identity of Tel Quel, and even the individual identity of Guyotat himself, who has commented: ‘I have written these things, but it wasn’t I who wrote them. I am the instrument of that writing. I am a body through whom the words pass.’ The body, then, is the instrument which hammers into, or else lets slip, language. It is the body which can disobey or endure, rather than its words. And the body is all there is between language and the void of censorship or fundamentalism or massacre or repetition.

The origin of the matter of writing is in its revelation of the duplicity that exists between the body and language, and in the shattering act of collision which also welds them together.


Pierre Guyotat: The Matter of Writing, based on a number of extensive conversations with Guyotat in Paris, originated in a talk given at the French Institute, London, in March 1995, as part of a conference on the French journal Tel Quel.

Stephen Barber.
Guyotat: A Vital Aberration, 2011

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