Donatien Grau: I have a sense that, in your recent work, the question of humanity has become more and more explicit. There has been a series of titles—Humains par hasard [Humans by chance, 2016], Joyeux animaux de la misère [Joyous Animals of Misery, 2014], Par la main dans les Enfers [By the Hand into the Hades, 2016]—that echo one another and call our humanity into question. Where do you stand these days on this question?
Pierre Guyotat: I’ve always dealt with that question. It’s nothing new, and it necessarily lies at the core of every work of art. To begin with, we have to decide what we mean by humanity. Do we mean humanity in the sense of humane sentiment? Do we mean the current mass of humanity, or evolution, or humanity with respect to a divinity? Or, especially, humanity versus inhumanity?
For years during my youth, when I was about thirty, I did indeed wittingly focus on humanity’s material aspect, its organic aspect—my psychoanalytic period. I was wary of all metaphysics, all psychology. For me at that time humanity was reduced so specifically to its bodily expression that things always came to a sort of burst. Every body bursting, every body exploding, as at the end of Eden, Eden, Eden, in 1970… Now is when I’m realizing this. When I do a reading of that book, especially of the end, I realize that it wasn’t just bodies exploding into scattering body parts out of sexual need. It was also that particular notion of exclusive corporeity, of corporality, coming into play.
For a long, long time I was “the body writer,” and I still am, alas. There’s still some body left. There’s still a bit of body, so there’s already an explosion from that. Philippe Sollers’s preface to Eden, Eden, Eden hints at the explosive side. Later it was language that exploded. It was absolute writing [l’écriture absolue], the horizontal act, what in the early 1970s I called the basic text, that exploded into voices. It was voices—in Prostitution, in 1975—that very quickly came to convey the explosion, that came to speak in lieu of the exploded body, of the exploded material body, or materialist body. It was, I think, the impossibility of going any further… In the end it’s the voice that conveys the description, the story, the statement, even if the voice is dispersed, or itself explodes. When I was working with the basic text, in 1970–1971, I would look for a first sentence that would lend the body the most intense possible corporality. And early on I got stuck: which of the body’s atoms should I start the text with? It couldn’t be a mere babbling. That was out of the question. This goes to show that for me the practice of art, or the need to make art, runs very deep, amounts to a philosophical need. It’s not merely aesthetic.
The use of voices is perhaps an admission of weakness… The vocal was already present in the text, in the form of a voice and a parallel voice. Leiris magisterially points this out in his preface. It was this voice that took charge when it proved impossible to get right down to the real: to get microscopically close, in fact… I wanted to find a literary, artistic equivalent in phrasing to atomic reality. And in the end I have perhaps been able to render that reality through the voice, through speech. I often look at vocalization as an easy, fun solution. It’s using voices that led me back to the notion of humanity, collectivity, echoes, conviction, seduction, pleas for help. By using voices I have rediscovered what we call humanity.
D.G.: Your humanity—or, at any rate, the humanity in your work—is always out of phase with itself. From Prostitution onward the language ceases, happily, to be standard contemporary French, and the creatures cease to be fully human. What, then, is your interest in humanity, being that its manifestation in your work is off-kilter from humanity?
P.G.: We should perhaps conclude that humanity no longer holds much interest for me for the purposes of fiction. I’ve given it brief appearances since then in the figures of brothel-goers in my fiction.
Also, perhaps humanity is appalling in the flesh for someone who lives it as intensely as I do, or else perhaps the real thing is too complex. I’m not the first to create a world of human appearance that tries to be human through and through, and is subject to the usual, ordinary human laws, the most summary laws, and then to create figures that are subject to a different law, a law that is indeed no longer human. Very gradually, starting with Progénitures , I have deprived these human figures of rudimentary human rights and even of the right to consider themselves human. This is perhaps a result of the trauma I suffered with the coma I fell into in 1981 and emerged from in 1982—a “resurrection” during which I was unable to say “I” and thus, for a time, unable to write.
I’ve also gradually come to think that I cannot allow human figures to languish in such slavery, even if it’s joyful and relatively consensual slavery. I couldn’t maintain that world, that body, within human law, in the human state. So I took things much further. In Progénitures I made those whore figures into non-beings—in the sense of non-existing, rather than of non-existence. This has nothing to do with the philosophy of my generation. I’ve found nothing to top non-beings. I’m of a generation that comes out of the most dreadful negation of man in the known, archived history of man. This is not in any way a regression into the past, as they say. It is perhaps, alas, a prefiguration.
D.G.: A prefiguration of what?
P.G.: Of I know not what. I see this work, my work, as a kind of insurance against a possible future. I’m also trying, very paradoxically, to soften what has happened. I think using non-beings, and making them into rather glorious figures, lovely figures, is also a way to reconsider what has happened. To soften what’s to come, by hand. A way to lay a hand on the shoulder of future victims. That’s how I see it.
In the naiveté of my childhood I would have liked to take by the hand all the women and men who were on the verge of death. Everything I do amounts to that: holding hands with someone else. Once the monster is born nothing can stop it. It took years, and gigantic armies, to slay the monster. There are tyrannies, there are wars, and then there are monsters that appear, that are impossible to bring to heel. Satan must pass.
￼In front of commemorative plaques in the chapel of the Cimetière de Picpus displaying the names, professions, and dates of birth and death of 1,306 victims of the terreur. Those guillotined on the Place du Trône renversé between June 14 and July 27, 1794, until the overthrow of Robespierre, were buried here in a mass grave.
Photo: Mathias Bothor