I think I always wanted the writing of the Marquis de Sade to be more fucked up than it is. For all the hype that’d been built up around him, by the time I first snuck in the library in like seventh grade to peek into Justine or whatever all full of adrenaline and some kind of unknown fear, I think I expected to read the book and have it burn me on the face, or at least to feel nauseated to the point it would be hard to even look straight at the words.
But it didn’t feel like that. There was all this other talking in the book, philosophy and Victorian back and forth. There were dirty scenes too, though they didn’t affect me as much as the anticipation of reading them did. As an adult now there are still certain things I like about Sade, and I’d take his masturbation scribbling over most other straight white male literary fantasy. It never was really his language or even the affect of his descriptions as much as simply his historical existence that I believe has made him stick around as “taboo.”
Years later, when I finally came across the writing of Pierre Guyotat, that whole gap of where the somewhat fizzled damage from Sade’s legacy had left open became suddenly and immediately awakened. Guyotat came with a similarly messed up biographical framework: He was drafted into the Algerian war around age 20 and served there until he was eventually arrested for inciting desertion among the troops and as a result was detained in a hole in the ground for three months. Using that experience and his hallucinations on the battlefields he wrote several books in his early 20s, including 1970’s Eden Eden Eden, which was banned for 11 years in France as pornographic.
Subsequently a petition on behalf of the merit of his work was written, including signatures by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Beuys, Jean Genet, Maurice Blanchot, Max Ernst, Italo Calvino, Simone de Beauvoir, and Nathalie Sarraute, which essentially had no legal effect. Beyond all that, he is notoriously known for having written himself into a coma, writing from such a state of hyper-volatility and obsession that he refused to eat and was hospitalized (and later explored this experience in great detail in his most recent work, Coma, released in English in 2010).
All this context still doesn’t really set you up for the onslaught of full-on linguistic beatdown this man has managed to cram into his words. Where other extreme-aimed texts focus on their subject matter to do the heavy lifting on how they slam into the reader, Guyotat’s language is the primary weapon in his barrage. He uses sound, stink, texture, motion, color, and relentless juxtaposition to break through the simple sheen of something maybe gross or terrifying to immediately graft it onto more: the image not static or pleased to be itself, but constantly unscrolling. His sentences are often full of colons and semi-colons and commas, forcing the eye to continue to move and feed the brain. I mean, here, one paragraph at random, from his Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, which is dedicated to his uncle who was killed in a concentration camp, published in French in 1968, and finally translated by Helen Lane to English in 2003:
“The sentries walk down the roadway ; the dredgers stab them and push them in the canal: blood bubbles in the back and mixes with the black water. The rebels run up the emergency staircase, they invade the dormitories, they brain the supervisor sisters in the alcove curtains ; they throw themselves heavily on the orphan girls, vomit on the pillow, slaughter ; the corroded, chipped, encrusted blades make freakish wounds on the throat, on the belly of the orphan girls; squeezed at the throat, scalped ; they scream: their mouths, their nostrils spit, their nails pierce the rebels’ wrists : one of them winds a supervisor in her cubicle’s curtain and he clubs her with the dormitory’s crucifix, then, tearing off the Christ’s head, he drives it into the supervisor’s cunt : the thorn crown tears the cunt’s labia ; the rebel’s arm gets tangled in the supervisor’s underskirts.”
At last it’s not even so much the matters of the brutality, though obviously vicious, as it is the space it chews out between each gesture and the word itself. You can vicariously sense not only the experience of the constant acts of rape, torture, murder of persons of all genders, ages, stations, etc., but also Guyotat’s ferocity in willing it into the word. It’s not even wholly the unending feed of brutal shit that forces us to feel this: the same sense of seething is apparent in the flickers of instants wedged in between, such as in his descriptions of grass, sky, sand:
“In the palace of gilded wood, pigs stir among the barrels at the end of the yard, small birds flutter around, the sun vibrates in the blue, the prisoners howl, lying on the slush of cock droppings, a child, iron-armoured, tightly wrapped in leather, pricks them with a stick, they then become silent, hold out their arms, open their hands, frogs jump out of them, their song dies on the slush…”
There’s no moment in here not pinned with heavy expectation, something rising almost as if through the paper. It fucks you up perhaps even more in when it is not fucking you up, because the undercurrent does not pause.
Some people would shit on this kind of work for being inhuman, for treading in the dark. It seems to me, though, there is a feeling of great tenderness in the horror, more so than Sade for sure, and even if in spite of itself. If you ask me it’s more human to get up in the face of all this shit head on; more human, anyway, than those books that by acting out their household realism with such contained poise and strokes of incidental drama that they, to me, in aping their humanism, are way more surreal than anything the so-called surrealists could be pinned to: a horror of a wholly other kind, but in the negative sense: a suckhole.
Even on the terms of human feeling, under all the terror Guyotat channels, there is a tone you can’t quite grasp, something desperate and somehow forgiving, and actually fucking tender without tipping his cards. There’s something, I don’t know, lifting by not lifting, a calm that, when it is able, sticks its head out even in amidst rats filling child skulls and soldiers fucking the dead. I won’t lie: I’m not the kind to get teary-eyed at much of anything, particularly on paper, though while reading Tomb on an airplane from Atlanta to New York there was a moment of desperation in the book that rung so hard and in so few words that I found my face wet even pressed into that seat and with the refreshment cart pressed at my shoulder. I won’t forget that, and I forget most everything.
The aforementioned Eden Eden Eden is maybe even more jacked to the teeth; it is, in fact, a single sentence that extends for 6762 lines, 163 pages. The language is clipped to screw in motions, each little clause another knife. Reading it, even for someone hungry and versed for such language violence, can be pressing, but also somehow like eating gasoline. It works in a wholly different way even than his other novels, more basic and analog in its continuous jissom. It has the texture of noise; maybe Prurient’s Black Vase is a good analogy. For instance:
“Khamssieh’s hand, weak, crushing tarantula in nostril : venom hardening forehead ; fingernails scraping cold blood around nipples ; pulling dead tarantula, pinching sticky legs, out of nostril, pushing crushed spider between buttocks ; exhausted elbows dropping onto heaps of floor-cloths : penis contracting into shriveled scrotum ; odour of sodomy wafting through room ; rubbing of jeans, farts : regular in dawn silence….”
It goes and goes. It amasses. It might, in the way I’d wished for Sade, actually be hard to look at the words. Eden Eden Eden in particular feels like the thing you wished you hadn’t seen, though that you can’t forget thereafter, and made of things most contemporary American literature in particular avoids because it has convinced itself of something else.
Maybe the thing I like most about reading Guyotat is how it feels in some way like standing near a really fucking tall wall that from a distance looks black as fuck and closer up is made of meat. There’s not so much a story or a message here as there is the body of the thing itself. In a way, Guyotat constructs his history as he writes it, constructing a field or space that wasn’t really there before he struck at it, though it smells and feels a hell of a lot like shit we’ve hidden. It is not romantic, nor is it necessarily horny, or even made to revel in its extremity. It is. "Pornography is certainly more beautiful than eroticism," Guyotat said once. "Eroticism is ugly. Eroticism is an ideology… there is nothing more boring than eroticism, it's worse than poetry, even. I say three cheers for pornography." Though in this case, there’s no orgasm, except that it’s all orgasm.