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by Stuart Kendall, first published in PORNOTOPIAS:IMAGE, APOCALYPSE, DESIRE, eds. Louis Armand, Jane Lewty, Andrew Mitchell (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2008). Photo: Jacques-Andre Boiffard, “Renée Jacobi,” Documents  8 (1930): 56.


Know what rhythm holds men.


The first night, 14 April 1973, Pierre Guyotat’s Bond en avant (Leap Forward) started an hour late.[1] A crowd of 2,000 spectators and media spilled out of the arena at La Rochelle into the street. Despite the size of the space, normally devoted to music and sports, not everyone could get in. They chanted “we are all Guyotats,” referencing the censorship of the author’s most recent novel, Eden, Eden, Eden. The show was a show of support: the spectators themselves a spectacle for the censors to see. And the performance was as political as it was politicized.

The writer was there along with everyone else: myriad newspaper critics and his friends and current and former associates; members of the Tel Quel group, then at the peak of its ascendancy, reaching apotheosis, and members of the communist party, which he had only recently quit in hostile frustration.

Inside, real meat and bones littered the performance space. Though it wasn’t meant to represent a butcher shop. Rather, it was cast with the raw results of butchery. For Guyotat, it was essential that the space actually stink (43). He had hoped that the actors might defecate there as well but this was beyond them. Stink, he argued, is undeniable, unavoidable, fact. One can dress a stage in images of atrocity but they will forever remain mere images. The atrocity of smells foul to human form however transcend and signal the end of the disembodied imagination. Stink, in other words, strikes at the eyes and mind, it closes the theatre of representation, through an opening in the nose, a hole in the body. A theatre of smells is an immanent theatre.

Nothing separated the spectators from the spectacle, though trails of sawdust articulated various spaces. There were no seats so the spectators could not sit. Rather, they roamed freely among the six actors: Saïd Bousouar, Marcel Bozonnet, François Kuki, Jean-Baptiste Malartre, Alain Ollivier, and Christian Rist. Four of them occupied specific locations, two circulated around the rest. Each was dressed differently, according to his own lights, but all were keyed to notions of political and personal transgression, wherein mere freakishness was, as it was in that era, a political statement: military uniforms, hats, aprons: costume as the articulation of personal difference. Jean-Baptiste Malartre was naked, on his knees, an Ace bandage around his genitals.

The actors spoke at once, in choral incantation:

… d’onir oedipien, nékros daron à maître de foutrée, parturiant’ aux paliers tringlées en subintranç’ extirpant d’avaloir têtes bèch’, sous puls’ hyperpnéen!,, solde sur formica, sondes orificiell’ concibrillant reflets du circul clandestine, mon debout impubèr’, slipaille sous granît tractant d’effluv’ nékros daronn’!, contre frais impubèr’ égorgé sous placard syphilis, qu’au feu ne brûle, si tu l’oz’!, ennarcosé d’osiaqu’, son blondier cruenté de mains mâl!, qu’en scalp, locust’ m’agraf’ aux pariétaux!!! à maîtr’!!!.. à mettr’! à mêtr’!..

Guyotat’s publisher, the most prestigious publisher in France, had printed the text for distribution at the performance. It ran to 26 pages in its final form.[2] 26 pages of scabrous personal confession, fantasy, and political invective, simultaneously a celebration and indictment of desire that also, and significantly, reinvented the French language. Only two of the six actors, Alain Ollivier and François Kuki, knew the full text. The others did the best they could, repeating the parts they knew.

The fundamental force of the piece followed from its rhythmic intensity, an intensity that only appears when the text is spoken aloud. No periods or paragraphs disrupt the 26 pages of flow. Nothing breaks, nothing stops the desiring language. Its forms flow one into the next into the next into the next. Neologisms, malapropisms, agrammaticisms, syntactical irregularities, portmanteau words, words derived from or reduced to their roots in Greek, Latin, and Old French, the argot of soldiers, prostitutes, and the area of France where Guyotat grew up, re-written with the inflection of an Arab speaker. But the force of the text is in its rhythm, in the sinuous insistence of the language beating through the body and breath of its speakers.

And the audience had the text in hand. They could, if they would, recite it themselves, become part of the show. Once again, nothing separated them from the actors. They had the text, they could “act” simply by reciting it. Or they could participate just by being there: a living, breathing, present, mass of humanity.

The mass circulated and individuals within it eventually became emboldened. Someone threw a bone into the air. It hit Ollivier. Another reached between his legs. He left before further escalation. The performance continued in chaos, each actor reciting as much as he could, at his own pace, before exiting the space.

In a review published the following week, one critic called Bond en avant “fashionable,” a damning dismissal of a difficult avant-garde work.[3] What can we make of it now, thirty five years, a generation later?

This is no idle question. Guyotat envisioned Bond en avant as an attack on the structures of representation that govern Western art, politics, and individual desire. To the extent that these structures still govern Western art, politics and desire, we must admit, already at this point, that he failed. We should also remember that these structures, along with Western civilization itself, have taken over the whole globe, in the words of Marx, with virulent rapacity. At best, Bond en avant can be remembered as an instructive failure, at worst as a dead end. But what can be expected of theatre? Immanent critique? Paradise now?

The notion that theatre might have some direct and positive effect on the way people live is of course an avant-garde notion, in the technical sense of this term. The avant-garde trend in modern art, of which Guyotat is often recognized as among the last living exemplars, must be understood as the will to change the world with aesthetic means: the will to create cultural objects and cultural forms, which themselves engender a new culture. Avant-gardism is thus as utterly distinct from mere experimentalism, which simply tries to create new forms for their own sake, as it is from works created in a traditional style which merely present or discuss potential new worlds. An avant-garde poetics (theory of creation) ultimately isn’t interested in creating new cultural forms so much as it is in creating, through those forms, an entirely new culture. Avant-gardism proposes the end of existing cultural forms. The point isn’t to simply talk about a new culture, the point is to create it. Avant-gardism is predicated on the parallel notions that cultural forms change culture and that culture changes cultural forms. We can’t move forward, let alone leap forward, if we are bound by the cultural forms of the past.

But what exactly does this mean? What is it to create a new cultural form? What limits circumscribe such creation? Marshall McLuhan made a career out of exploring this question across the media. “The past went that-a-way,” he wrote, “When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavour of the most recent past.”[4] The first content of a new media is provided by old media. Film very quickly became narrative film, filmed stories or novels. This in mind, can change ever be anything other than incremental? What would it be to truly leap forward? A truly avant-garde theatre might not be theatre at all. (The notion of using theatre as a means of social change, rather than of changing theatre as a means of changing society, is a reformist notion rather than a revolutionary one.)

On the second night, the actors pushed the show further. Jean-Baptiste Malartre and Marcel Bozonnet entered the space completely naked, covered in blood, with a wheelbarrow full of meat. They had hoped to have erections as well but couldn’t pull it off. 600 spectators were there that night.

Guyotat wasn’t pleased with the results. Most of the actors didn’t know their lines and lacked the appropriate mixture of gravitas and comedy, being merely frivolous. He pressed Ollivier to ask Malartre to leave. Everyone but Kuki and Ollivier left with him, seeing the request as politically motivated: Malartre being a member of the communist party that Guyotat had rejected.

Thereafter the show improved for its second run, from April 25th to May 20th, at the Théâtre de la Tempête, at the Vincennes cartridge factory. Ollivier wore military fatigues, Kuki was naked, carried in a cart: they spoke the rhythmic text together, as Guyotat originally intended it.

Alain Ollivier and Pierre Guyotat had been friends for a decade, since 1963. They had several cultural perspectives in common, in particular an experience of colonial Algeria, where Ollivier had lived as an adolescent and where Guyotat’s adolescence had come to a definitive end, as a dissenting French soldier in the Algerian war. In the late 1960s, they shared an apartment for a while: Ollivier pursuing his career in the theatre, Guyotat his as a celebrated writer at the forefront of the avant-garde.

Ollivier’s initial request had been that Guyotat adapt Moliére’s Don Juan for a contemporary production for the Centre Dramatique National at the Théâtre du Lambrequin in Lille. The project had the blessing of the theatre’s director, Jacques Rosner, and Guyotat was given a stipend to complete the work from the Commission d’Aide à la Création Littéraire. But Guyotat very quickly changed the project from Don Juan to a substantial re-imagining of Don Juan to, finally, preparing an entirely new, original text. Rosner agreed to this change at first but eventually suggested that the play be staged at the University of Lille rather than at the Théâtre du Lambrequin, signalling a mounting discomfort.

At least two elements of this context were enormously important. First, and primarily, the fact that Guyotat’s Eden, Eden, Eden had been banned by the government for its sexual and political content. He was thus at the time considered by many to be the most infamous Leftist pornographer in France; the only living writer to rank with the Marquis de Sade. Moliére’s Don Juan was hardly an innocent choice of text for him to adapt. Second, and extending this notion, it should be remembered that in 1973 the sexual revolution was still on-going, if not in fact at its height. Guyotat, a writer banned for his promotion of political and sexual freedoms, was being asked to adapt a text concerned with those very freedoms from the centre of the patriarchal cultural canon, a play first performed in 1665, addressing the most burning and personal political topics of the present day.

Not surprisingly, in February 1973, the director of the Maison de la Culture à La Rochelle, Dominique Bruschi, approached the president of the Rencontres internationales d’Art contemporain de la ville, Robert Kalbach, with concerns about the potential propriety of presenting a work by Guyotat at the festival. Guyotat and Ollivier moved the performance to the sports arena in La Rochelle and went on with their production, shut out from the bastions of state supported theatrical culture, at least for the moment. (Later in life they would both be welcomed back to the fold: classics of the counterculture.)

Guyotat’s initial proposal for the project dates from January 1972. He worked and reworked it over the following year, creating a text that was, in his words, “saturated, a text on textual saturation, on sexual, political, bodily, racial, etc. saturation …” (47). “I think I have achieved a limit here: it’s an unbearable, destructive text” (56).

A complex of four interrelated profound events gave specific intellectual and emotional shape to the work. Eden, Eden, Eden had been banned by the French government in 1970. Guyotat’s father, Alfred, had died in November 1971. A long-standing conjugal relationship with a woman, who asks that her anonymity be respected, had come to an end. And, in February 1972, Guyotat quit the communist party after five years of militancy.

A group or party, he believed, had no right to impose its ideas about or approach to cultural revolution over its members. Each of us must pursue revolution, or more simply life, on our own. Politically this is a question—the question—of representation. Guyotat’s position was a political one but it was also biological. Biologically speaking, we are all each radically alone (65). This sentiment became acute for Guyotat with the death of his father (his mother having died in 1958). It became doubly acute with the end of his relationship with A. (as Guyotat’s biographer Catherine Brun calls her). Unable to functionally live in harmony with a woman, he nonetheless recognized the profound differences between men and women in the world. He discovered the plight of women in patriarchal society at the moment he became lost to one woman in particular. His isolation was more or less complete. Isolated from mainstream culture because he could not accept its limitations, isolated from the progressive left again because he rejected its repressive limitations, he was isolated biologically from others, from family and female companionship. He was also isolated from expression itself—the fulfilment of his vocation as a writer—because the government banned his work.

The government ban on Eden, Eden, Eden, issued in 1970, had been a cause célèbre. Guyotat naturally leapt to the defensive of his work. He pumped the press, giving interviews everywhere he could, including long and complex theoretical and biographical explications of his difficult book, in Tel Quel, La Nouvelle Critique, and Promesse, among other venues. Jerome Lindon, editor of Les Editions de Minuit, penned a petition in favour of the book to be published in Le Monde. The book had been prefaced by Michel Leiris, Roland Barthes, and Philippe Sollers, the petition was signed by le tout Paris. The final list of signatures ran to 27 pages of names. Gallimard collected all of this material together as a book entitled Littérature interdite (Forbidden literature, 1972). The censors might have banned the book, but they couldn’t block the debate about it.

When Alain Ollivier asked Guyotat to write something for him to stage, he was offering a profoundly isolated—sexually, socially, politically—man a venue for the continuation of his defence, a defence coloured in the rage of attack. Prior to this moment, writing was for Guyotat a means of creating a fortress against but within bourgeois culture. Now he intended to transform his work into an active barricade along the cultural front (102), a point of attack.

This transformation occasioned a major shift in Guyotat’s artistic methods and production. Retrospectively, he divides his career into four phases linked to the forms of his production: his adolescent poetry (juvenilia), écrit or writing (as in prose), langue or language, and verbe or word. For our purposes it is essential to note that each of the most tremendous changes in the form of his cultural production were occasioned by his involvement with performance.

Guyotat discovered his vocation in language around the age of fourteen when he first read Rimbaud and began writing poetry of his own. His mother died when he was seventeen and, in shock and lacking her support, his writing changed registers: he wrote in prose. He did this for the next fourteen years, producing two of the most complex and celebrated classics of twentieth century French literature: Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats (1967) and Eden, Eden, Eden (1970). The second of these books was, as we have seen, banned by the French government for the virulence of its description of colonialism at work. Guyotat’s writing at this point had been stripped of its anthropomorphism, pushed to the absolute limits of scientific specificity. He wrote from behind a wall of dictionaries and grammar books. Along these lines, Eden, Eden, Eden cannot be called a novel because it lacks all of the formal armature that organizes traditional novels (remembering that the novel is a distinctly Western, and bourgeois, form of representation, however widely it has been exported): psychological characterization, incidental plot, an interplay of surface and depth, action and meaning, all are utterly absent from the work.

His work banned, Guyotat was, as we have seen, isolated and at an impasse. He was at an impasse because he felt he had reached the end of writing. He struggled with a piece he called Basic Text, but without satisfaction. The language had closed in upon itself, become inert. Then Alain Ollivier asked him to write something for the theatre: it became Bond en avant.

Bond en avant, and the leap forward it occasioned, launched the second phase of his career (overlooking the juvenilia). It occasioned the appearance of la langue, language or the spoken tongue. Guyotat pushed this form of expression to its limits over the next decade, running an aesthetic gauntlet that ultimately, in December 1981, put him in a coma for three weeks. Bond en avant became part of his next book Prostitution (1975), followed by Encore plus que la Lutte des Classes (1975-77, unpublished), Le Livre (1977-79, published in 1984) and L’Histoire de Samora Machel (1979-81, unpublished).

Following his coma and recovery, Guyotat began working again, slowly and again without satisfaction. Then once again Alain Ollivier asked him to write a text for the theatre, this became Bivouac (staged in 1987). The strophic form of the text signalled the new direction of Guyotat’s production: a kind of writing that fused writing and performance, that Guyotat calls the verbe, the word.

In 1989, then again in 1992, Guyotat gave a series of “Séances d’Improvisation publique”: performances in which he created narratives before a live audience, based on themes suggested by the day’s events. Between 1991 and 1996, he delivered several more lecture performances, linked more closely to his written works. Writing and performance were one, fusing revelation and invention. Guyotat’s performances were and are not one man shows, nothing here is prepared in advance. He is not an actor performing an author’s text. He is a creator analyzing and advancing the language of the community within that community. His late style of writing derives from these performances, striving to capture the flow and force of the words on a page.

In 1997, Bernardo Montet asked Guyotat to write a text for a ballet based on a recent incident in Algeria wherein a woman’s son was forced to eat a breast cut from his still living mother’s body. For six shows, in Angers, Montpellier, and Paris, Guyotat himself appeared on stage to read his text—entitled Issê Timossé, an ibo phrase referring to the body in the fullness of its experience—as six dancers (two female, four male) moved about him in time with the music of his voice.

In 2000, Editions Gallimard published Progénitures, parts one and two, an eight hundred page work written in rhythmic strophes, accompanied by a CD of Guyotat reading the opening pages of the text:

l’ jiarret boueux, l’ orbit’ empossiàrée, ta poitrin’ m’ trembler, l’ comptoir caisse’, ta mâchoir’, a’c, mes chieveux chiauds,
d’ ö, l’ hors bordel, banlioue?, Franç’?, m’ dehanchier, gars, tes cent-un kilogs chantants, quaqu’ banquet celest’?,
d’ quà ta faç’ mâchiurée d’ chiarogn’ rat—l’ relent l’ tueur en refaufiler sa lam’ d’dans sa taille’! –,
l’mouchiassat t’ en rentrer s’ assoupir dedans tes narins’!

Since then Guyotat has diversified his production even further, without straying from his investigation of the word. He narrated a personal history of music for France Culture radio and taught an extended course in the history of the French language at the University of Paris. His two most recent publications are autobiographical accounts of his descent into a coma and of his cultural formation in the 1940s and 1950s.

At each stage then, a leap forward. At each stage, an encounter with the stage. Each stage an end to his isolation, a means of moving his personal energy, the force of his language, into the community.

Writing occurs in isolation and novels are written to be read alone. The novel is thus a quintessentially modern form: a form which demands both isolation and communication. It is written in a language shared by both the writer and the reader and written to be discussed, creating a circuit of exchange between isolated individuals and the groups in which they choose to participate.

A writer may write alone, but a speaker animates a crowd, transforms a crowd into a community. Guyotat’s gesture has been to push the work of the writer into the public sphere and to do so as a mode of self-presentation. With each step, he has come to incarnate language ever more socially. His work has moved beyond the bourgeois novel and beyond the bourgeois theater, beyond the forms of the era of representation into the realm and era of presentation, wherein presentation also means diffusion, diversification, dissemination.

Guyotat discovered the power of speech in 1972, while working on Bond en avant. He discovered it when he spoke at a conference organized at Cérisy la Salle during the first week of July by the Tel Quel group.[5] The conference was entitled Toward a Cultural Revolution: Bataille-Artaud and Guyotat was asked to speak during the portion of the conference devoted to Antonin Artaud. He spoke from notes rather than from a completed text, so that he could, as he said, “speak with the writing between his hands and under his eyes” (11). He titled his presentation “The Language of the Body,” and devoted it to the patient elaboration of his youthful practice of masturbating while writing, to an exploration therefore of the relationship between physical desire and the literary imagination. He spoke frankly and without sensationalism, though the lecture not surprisingly caused a sensation. An extemporaneous lecture could not be banned, as Eden, Eden, Eden had been banned, but it could be a means of revelation, a pathway out of isolation.

Distinct from his lecture performances in the late 1980s and 1990s, Guyotat has spoken in public at events devoted to other writers only on three occasions, and they offer a significant aside to our observations. First, at the 1972 Tel Quel Artaud-Bataille conference, and then at a conference devoted to Jean Genet in 1991, and finally at a colloquium devoted to both Artaud and Genet in London in 1996. Three times then, for theatre: for Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet. On each occasion Guyotat either read his own work or spoke about it rather than addressing the ostensible topics or figures at hand. His appearances were signs of proximity and recognition rather than demonstrations of critical reflection, but they are significant enough as that.

Guyotat outlined his understanding of theatre in Explications, a book length interview published in 2000 alongside Progénitures:

The stage permits an elementary discovery that creates pleasure and fear: a spoken work is a force, a power. One grasps [entend] the effects of this power directly. I discovered this power to move, perhaps even to return, at the same time that I discovered my freedom to say absolutely anything that I want. This unlimited freedom, never acquired once and for all, this freedom augments with age. What is it about the stage that makes the discovery of these two terrible things possible? Is it the darkness of the place, the liturgical quality of the stage with its apparitions and disappearances, its wings, the faceless respirations of its audience? It’s an extraordinarily organic place; urgent, paradisiacal perhaps, radically opposed, though similar, to the Intensive Care Unit [salle de réanimation]; its positive double.[6]

The closing reference to the Intensive Care Unit is of course a reference to Guyotat’s collapse into a coma in December 1981. The respirators of the ICU breathe for you whereas a theatrical audience breathes with you.

The power of the theatre is a direct power, felt in its effects. Guyotat’s discovery of the direct power of the theatre was linked to the political struggles of the 1970s. To present his work—his language—on stage was to present it to the public in as immediate and direct a manner as possible. It was to submit his work and himself to public reaction and interpretation as intimately and immediately as possible. On stage, the public sounding of the work reverberates within it, implicating the author in the creation of a meaning distinct from that which he created when writing alone in his room. For Guyotat, to write for the stage, or more accurately perhaps, for performance, is to “shatter the isolation” of both the work and its author.[7] Theatre, he says, is “an ‘art’ of contestation” (108).

Bond en avant. Leap forward. Derived from French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s famous phrase, la poésie ne rythmera plus l’action; elle sera en avant, from his “visionary letter” to Paul Demeny on 15 May 1871. Poetry will no longer lend rhythm to action; it will be in advance [of action]. Poetry will change the world. Bond en avant. The spoken word, the langue, will change the world.

Guyotat offered a terse summary of Bond en avant in its final role as the conclusion to Prostitution: “The completion of my adult prostitutionalization (1972): pimps, partisans, patrons. A shout to those of my friends in politics and in the arts who reject my new language. Monsters, microbes, work wounds per force and prostitution. An appeal to all the parts of my brain. To my first rapists. My death to women.”

On the back cover of the first edition of Prostitution, he explained his new language:

This book is an offence (has it been forgotten that Eden, Eden, Eden remains banned?): each attempt at a “rational” explanation that I can offer (have I ever refused to constrain myself, based on my previous books?) will be expelled from the mouth of the defendant by force, before judges, favourable or not, from whom I reverse the moral and grammatical movement. And, the more and better I explain myself, the more I will be condemned.

Accented, beat, lexicalized by every smothered tongue, choked back by the official French language, this writing (let it go, your mouth will put it into speech), constituted by everything that was forbidden from my life, returned within me, unconscious, history, ancient, animal through the empty parts of my sexual apparatus, released anew, in the future (destructuration of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois language), through my mouth, after illegal respiration in the lung-Law.

As for the rest (the “representation”—postures, interpellation—, therefore the offence), “minoritary linguistics”, Arab, Black, German, my brother now in sound, helps me make this understood to those who make believe that I’m alive, but dead; and to those who too often warn me of the danger that surrounds me from the repression of the others by mentioning, to silence me, those places of internment which they think they see me, book by book, approaching.

Bond en avant commingles elements of a slaughterhouse and a brothel against the backdrop of colonial warfare. The actors embody blood soaked soldier-prostitutes, the desiring slaves of a colonialist civilization. The audience, participating in the event, incarnates this same bloodthirsty colonialist mass: desiring destruction. Guyotat’s hyperbolic creative imagination pushes our world to its limits, envisioning all humans as workers, all workers as slaves, and all slaves as prostitutes. To participate in our world, our consumer economy predicated on the provocation and procurement of consumer desire, is to participate in prostitution and it is ultimately and inevitably to give oneself over to the prostitutionalization of one’s desire. To buy in is to sell one’s desire. Guyotat transforms the Biblical injunction to earn one’s bread through the sweat of one’s brow into earning one’s bread through the sweat of one’s sex. But he finds pleasures even in degradation. Desire expresses itself even in self-destruction. The death drive knows no higher ideal than base expenditure.[8] Bond en avant, as an expression of that drive, offers a peculiar pleasure to its participants—its actors and its audience—the pleasure of a naked lunch, the revelation of the desiring forces of creation and destruction unfolding around us, in us, and through us. It is a work that, as its author admits, can only be condemned. “The most durable subversion,” Guyotat said in a letter in October 1972, “is criminal (Sade, Genet),” often produced “in the greatest mental disorder, in the darkest sexual filthiness, in the most silent political torment.”[9]

Guyotat breaks with the structures of representation that govern politics, art, and desire in the West by rejecting the notion that this shall be that. Representation stands on the equivalence of A and B. This logic governs every economy of exchange based on equivalence. The rules of the economy stimulating the principles of the exchange: A shall be B through similitude, through metaphor, through substitution. Time shall be labour. Labour shall be value. A person shall be a thinking thing. The logic of representation is the logic of abstraction, and abstraction is always the abstraction of a part for a whole. One man shall be the state, one part shall be the body, one thought shall be the message of the book. In Guyotat, this shall be this and this shall stand fully revealed. This shall be this because it is this body.

Guyotat’s theatre is a not a theatre of appearances in the sense of representations. It is a theatre of appearances in the sense of presentations. The scene references images and ideas circulating in culture—images of atrocity, slavery, prostitution—but it does not contain them within a tableau that the spectator may complacently comprehend. Rather it serves to create a space wherein they may commingle and combine with the members of the community itself. The theatrical space, for Guyotat, is a clearing, in Heidegger’s sense of this term, an opening for existence to be.

Along these lines, as much as possible, Guyotat’s theatre denies the difference between the author and the actor, actor and the audience, the stage and the street. The author prepares the text but the actor—the actor’s breath, the actor’s body—presents it. The audience has the text in hand and circulates freely among the actors. And the problems of the stage are those of the street, pushed to hyperbolic extremes.

Most significantly, Guyotat’s theatre is a theatre of language. But his language is a language of the body. It is a dense language, a language worked through, cleansed as much as possible of its grammatical structures of domination (possession, subordination), revelatory of its origins, and open to contamination from without (French spoken with an Arab accent: colonized by the colonized). His language is difficult, it is never obscure (and so, modern rather than postmodern, Ulysses rather than Finnegans Wake). It is a language in process.

Though his figures are bare, their presentation, or better their revelation, has less to do with their nakedness than it does with the revelation of their physical rhythm. This is difficult for us to perceive and for most spectators to accept. We are so prone to making a fetish of the body that we cannot see it for what it is: a field of force prior to being an image of desire. The actor’s body is more significant in its rhythms than in its status as naked.

Guyotat’s language is a language given over to the rhythmic force of language and taken over by the rhythmic potentialities of the actor’s bodies. It’s power then consists in its commingling of forces, of bodies, author’s and actor’s.

In this form, rhythmic language functions as a vehicle of paideuma, a vortex of culture, roots, energies, and ambitions. Eric Havelock has explored this idea more thoroughly than anyone else, in his investigation of the relationship between the body and cultural education in oral cultures like pre-Classical Greece, Preface to Plato. His thoughts are equally applicable to Guyotat’s works for performance.
In performance the co-operation of a whole series of motor reflexes throughout the entire body was enlisted to make memorization and future recall and repetition more effective. These reflexes in turn provided an emotional release for the unconscious layers of personality which could then take over and supply to the conscious mind a great deal of relief from tension and anxiety, fear and the like. This last constituted the hypnotic pleasure of the performance, which placed the audience under the minstrel’s control, but was itself the ready servant of the paideutic process. Pleasure in the final analysis was exploited as the instrument of cultural continuity. […] This fact may cast light on a baffling quality in the Greek experience in both the archaic and high classical periods which is best described as its automatic relish in life and its naturalistic acceptance of life’s varied and manifold moral aspects. The Greeks, we feel, were both controlled in their experience and yet also unfettered and free to an extent we cannot share. They seem to enjoy themselves.[10]
In sum, the rhythm of language in performance is a pleasure not only for the ear but for the whole body and it is a pleasure that gathers within itself the whole body of a culture: our bodies, in Havelock’s interpretation, incarnate communal memory in the form of our desires. The rhythms of our speech activate that memory and that desire, while simultaneously transforming it to our own needs, our own bodily experiences and limitations, our individual lung-span. To read Guyotat aloud is to be invaded by Guyotat, to commingle with him. This is not a question of appearance, it is a question of existence.
Is this fashionable, as a critic said of Bond en avant?

The work does bear some resemblance to theatrical works of the past and present. We’ve signalled its proximity of method and concern to those of the pre-Classical Greeks. But that reference can hardly be considered fashionable. As an investigation and elaboration of the physical nature of the body and of culture, Bond en avant might be compared to the works of the Vienna Actionists, though the importance of language in Guyotat is an obvious mark of distinction. Guyotat’s recourse to bare flesh brings his work into proximity with the Living Theatre, to some extent, though the complex analytic component of his project and again his recourse to language, palls that affiliation. Guyotat’s work does owe an enormous debt of proximity to Artaud’s quest for uniqueness, his resurrection of the body as a body without organs, free from the judgment of god, as well as to Jean Genet’s exploration of cultural and political colonialism and the colonization of desire in his novels and theatrical works. Genet’s use of masks and personae distinguish his project from Guyotat’s however, in ways we don’t have space here to explore.
Bond en avant. Leap forward. What can we make of it now? Where is the work? The text begins in the body—Guyotat’s body. As a rhythmic contagion, it contaminates the bodies of the actors and the audience. It spills off the page onto the stage and off the stage into the street.

The audience possessed the printed text of the piece. Were they attentive, they could read it themselves and thereby do more or less exactly what the actors were doing. A similar experiment might be attempted at the next Shakespeare festival. We all have access to the text. Why not speak along, as one might at a rock concert, where the voices of the crowd often drown out the band.

While Bond en avant was in rehearsals and during the course of the performances, Guyotat gave several texts and interviews about it to L’Autre scène, Travail théâtral, and Art Press.[11] Each of the interviews took place over several days, sometimes months apart. The texts too span the months from January to May, 1973. As in the relationship between the texts and interviews of Littérature interdite and Eden, Eden, Eden, these texts and interviews explain and defend Bond en avant. They are distinct from it but part of it. Performances that carry the text into culture by other means.

Bond en avant later became the basis for and culmination of Guyotat’s next prose work (again, for reasons outline above one is wrong to call Prostitution a novel). The work cannot be restaged in part because it has swollen from 26 pages to 242. When Gallimard reissued Prostitution in 1987, Guyotat appended 120 pages of glossary, grammar, and translations of foreign terms. This apparatus was in part based on notes made for and by the actors in Bond en avant, who needed it as a means to access the work.

From the body to the page, from the page to the stage from the stage to the street and, diversely, into print, in associated texts and interviews, and in extension as the culmination of a work, ten times its original length. None of these forms are forms of representation. As forms of presentation, they disseminate the body of the work into culture, but diversely. In the era of presentation, events are never presented, simply present, rather they proliferate, leap forward. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
[1]   My account of this performance relies heavily on Catherine Brun, Pierre Guyotat: essai biographique (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2004) and Pierre Guyotat, Vivre (Paris: Gallimard, 2003). Citations from Vivre are indicated in the text with parenthetical references to page numbers. All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

[2]   See Pierre Guyotat, Prostitution (Paris: Gallimard, 1987) 216-42. The original text was printed separately by Gallimard in 1973 as Bond en avant.

[3]   Guy Dumur, in Le Nouvel Observateur, quoted in Brun, Pierre Guyotat, 268.

[4]   Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (Los Angles: Gingko Press, 1996) 74.

[5]   See Philippe Sollers, ed. Artaud (Paris: U.G.E., 10/18, 1973). Guyotat’s lecture, minus the discussion that followed, is reprinted in Vivre, 11-35.

[6]   Pierre Guyotat, Explications (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2000) 37.

[7]   Guyotat, Explications,  38.

[8]   Jean-François Lyotard explores these ideas thoroughly in his “evil” book, Libidinal Economy (1974), as do many of the post-structuralist attempts to think beyond Marx and Freud: Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death (1959), Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972), Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976).

[9]   Letter from Pierre Guyotat to Odette Laigle, 25 October 1972; qtd in Brun, Pierre Guyotat, 274-75.

[10]   Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963) 157.

[11]   See “L’Autre scene,” “Travail théâtral,” and “L’Acteur impossible” in Vivre.

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
March 2014
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