Reading Pierre Klossowski

Context N°14

by John Taylor

Let’s take Pierre Klossowski (1905-2001) at his word, and read him with his favorite word. He claimed to “fabricate simulacra.” What exactly did the French writer mean? The word “simulacrum” is restricted by English usage to “a representation of something (image, effigy),” to “something having the form but not the substance of a material object (imitation, sham),” and to “a superficial likeness (appearance, semblance).” Contemporary French understands the term similarly, while maintaining traces of more concrete Latin meanings: “statue (of a pagan god),” even “phantom.” Interestingly, French adds “a simulated act” to these semantic possibilities, as in Raymond Queneau’s amusing description in Zazie in the Metro: “He took his head in his hands and performed the futile simulacrum (fit le futile simulacre) of tearing it off.” For Roman writers, a simulacrum could also be “a material representation of ideas” (and not just that of a deity), as well as “a moral portrait.”

One must think in Latin when reading Klossowski. All of the above meanings inform the strange and disturbing erotic fiction of this writer who not only produced The Baphomet (1965) and the trilogy Les lois de l’hospitalité (The Laws of Hospitality) (1954-1965), but also translated Suetonius, Virgil, and Saint Augustine (alongside Kafka, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Hölderlin, and Heidegger). The author’s intimacy with Latin, and with Latin literature, cannot be overemphasized. So strong was his attachment that it clearly affected his French syntax and diction, as if the dead language had somehow survived in him—a second mother tongue, both nourishing and competing with a first one. Possessing an antiquarian atmosphere all its own (especially in The Baphomet), Klossowski’s style disorients readers unaware of this linguistic background (which includes, moreover, his consorting with liturgical and biblical Latin during his World War II years spent as a Dominican novitiate). May it be said that Klossowski’s meticulously quaint style is itself a simulacrum of sorts, a conscious transposition into French of the spirit of Latin, a modern-day linguistic specter of a once-vital source that has been lost and in this way “recovered”?

The notion of “simulacrum” especially informs the mystical poetics that Klossowski associates with an unusual and not uncontroversial form of erotic behavior, as depicted above all in the three novels making up the trilogy: Roberte Ce Soir (1954), The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1959), and Le Souffleur (1965). (In the definitive structuring of the trilogy, Klossowski left Le Souffleur at the end, but reversed the order of the two other volumes.) Briefly stated, in those three novels (which return thrice to the same plot, though from different narrative angles and with different literary techniques), a main character named Octave (who sometimes tells the story, sometimes is “morally” portrayed) applies what he terms “the laws of hospitality” and thereby shares his wife, Roberte, with sundry guests and visitors. In Roberte Ce Soir, the codified detail of these laws appear as a manuscript framed and hung in the visitor’s bedroom.

“Hospitality” of this kind posits, to say the least, a provocative conception of marriage, not to mention love. If Klossowski had contented himself with staging the social consequences of such a practice, his erotic writings would have remained shallow, however scandalous and (more often than critics have noticed) comical. Yet as in other examples of that quintessentially French literary tradition going back at least as far as the Marquis de Sade (the pertinence of whom Klossowski himself rehabilitates in Sade My Neighbor, 1947), explicitly sexual, even blatantly pornographic, writings sometimes aim well beyond their immediate subject matter. Paradoxically, such fiction can wax philosophical.

The French propensity to incarnate ideas in depictions of the carnal reaches a high point in Klossowski’s fiction, which indeed resembles Sade’s in a few ways. As graphic as his erotic scenes are, they are hardly intended to titillate; instead, they generally consist of stark, emotionally neutral descriptions. Moreover, in Klossowski, the sustained quasi-theatrical poses making up the sexual scenes do not particularly create the illusion of continuous sexual movement. Another key concept for Klossowski is that of the tableau vivant, a static dramatic scene forming, literally, a “picture made up of living characters.” His sexual scenes form intricate, puzzling tableaux-signs. But signs indicating what?

Metaerotic in this sense, Klossowski’s writing tends to direct the reader “beyond” the immediate textual (that is, sexual) detail. Perhaps some readers will engage their own sexual fantasies, as narrative “filler,” and thereby add fluid movements to these set pieces, but more often than not they will ponder a perplexing abstract question: To what ends have been arranged these sordid tableaux vivants, and what motivates them? The reader moves constantly from concrete sexual detail to questions and ideas, and this effect partly results from the various narrative forms employed (straightforward storytelling, diaristic notes, dialogues) and from unexpected shifts in narrative viewpoint. The importance lies in how the tableaux vivants are perceived and experienced—personally or vicariously, bodily or mentally.

As the first volume of the trilogy progresses, Roberte comments on her husband as a character, then as a character-author of a book—in fact, the second volume, Roberte Ce Soir—that he has written about her. In this first book, which alternates passages from Roberte’s and Octave’s diaries, Octave also reflects on himself as a character, then as a character-author. In other words, passages that have recently been written (as it were) become objects of commentary in other, not necessarily later, passages. When Octave describes his art collection, he self-analyzes his writings about Roberte as well. And the paintings that he details (sometimes rather painstakingly) also bear on the story. Adding to the multiple ironies is that Roberte is a radical deputy who is a member of a Governmental Educational Committee that must decide whether to ban Octave’s writings about her. An additional spoof on censorship (and self-censorship) can be found in Klossowski’s little-known “divertimento,” Roberte et Gulliver, published in 1987.

Given this multilayered narrative approach, it is not always easy to establish what levels of “reality” or phantasm are being dealt with at a given point in the tripartite narrative. Klossowski approved of the critic Jean Roudaud’s remark that he had set to work narratively Giordano Bruno’s definition of thinking as “speculating with images.” Increasingly, the story seems less one of real than of speculative events.

The second version of the same story, Roberte Ce Soir, renders even more intricate these intertwined speculative narratives spinning off from what is Octave’s single persistent obsession: how to love Roberte. This second volume is actually narrated not by Octave, but rather by Antoine, Octave’s nephew (who ends up having a sexual relationship with his aunt); and Antoine discusses, too, how Roberte is represented in Octave’s writings. Crowning the complexity is a puzzling sentence discreetly slipped in at the onset of Roberte Ce Soir. Antoine, the narrator, observes: “I was thirteen years old when I was adopted by the Octaves.” Does this strange use of a first name in the plural imply that Roberte is actually one with Octave, and even that Klossowski is one with Antoine (as well as with Octave and Roberte), rather as in Flaubert’s quip that “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”?

More generally, the “host,” Octave, wants to experience the risk of losing Roberte so that he can love her all the more strongly. For him, voyeuristic tension engenders an amorous exaltation restoring, for him, the initial purity of his love. But experiencing once again original, quasi-sacred amorous feelings demands transgressing conventional marital behavior and shrewdly manipulating others, including his wife (as well as Antoine and various “guests”). Such are the questionable Manichaean (not to say Machiavellian) ethics at play here. Similar manipulations are staged in the Templar tale, The Baphomet, and its theatrical counterpart, L’Adolescent immortel (2001), though in these books Klossowski stresses more the idea of an initiation or a moral “itinerary.”

Searching for the sacred via transgression brings to mind the French philosopher Georges Bataille, about whom Klossowski wrote an important essay: “La Messe de Georges Bataille.” Sinning and sacredness also blend in the hauntingly beautiful poems and novels of Pierre Jean Jouve, whom Klossowski praises in another essay for preserving “a qualitative notion of the human soul as being made up of contests between the body and the mind.” Klossowski admires the latter’s novels as exegeses “of an absolutely unique kind, of the soul’s itinerary as it is dominated by sin.” Although Klossowski eventually modified his critical vocabulary (eschewing terms that derived from his midlife religious crisis), these remarks about Jouve elucidate his own fiction. Just replace “sin” with “phantasm” or “obsession.”

How does “simulacrum” relate to all this? In the self-elucidating fourth section of Tableaux vivants: essais critiques 1936-1983 (2001), Klossowski recalls that in antique statuary, because it was considered impossible to create a soul to animate the simulacra of gods, the souls of intermediaries—that is, demons and angels—would be invoked and locked inside holy or sacred images so that these “idols” would thereafter have the power to perform good or evil deeds. Klossowski infers a psycholiterary theory from this ancient custom: the emotion contained in a work of art—and thus provoked in the spectator or reader—is correlative to a “demonic movement.” Klossowski’s characters are “idols” in this literal, as well as ancient, sense.

Pursuing this same idea in his book-length essay, Diana at Her Bath (1956), Klossowski explains how the goddess Diana makes a pact with an “intermediary demon” so as to appear before Acteon, a human being. “The demon simulates Diana in a theophany,” comments Klossowski, “and creates in Acteon the desire and the hope of possessing the goddess.” Klossowski adds that the demon thereby “becomes Acteon’s imagination as well as a mirror-image of Diana.” This double effect of the simulacrum is essential. The demon inhabits not only what it reveals (the goddess Diana), but also the spectator (Acteon) to whom the image of the goddess is revealed. In both his painting and writing, Klossowski aimed to create simulacra that affected the “contemplator” (the spectator, the reader) in the same way that an “invisible model” had affected him.

The “demonic” aspects of Klossowski’s artistic philosophy, in its later stages, perhaps seem closer to the psychoanalytical paradigms of obsession and phantasm than to Christian concerns with evil and the Devil. Still, it remains difficult to read his works without recalling his long training for the Catholic priesthood. Beset with “pathophania,” as he put it, Klossowski believed that obsessional negative visions should be exorcized. For him, writing was no rhetorical game, but rather the very act by which imaginative subject matter is dealt with, then exorcized. In Tableaux vivants, he writes of “simulacrum” as the “realization of something that is incommunicable in itself or unrepresentable: literally the phantasm in its obsessional constraint.” The function of the simulacrum is “at first to exorcize,” he adds, “but in order to exorcize the obsession, the simulacrum imitates what it fears in the phantasm.” Klossowski’s images—both artistic and literary—are always tantalizing and often cumulatively harrowing because of this conscientious, indeed courageous, mimesis.

The crucial difference between Klossowski and Sade is that the former’s explorations of fear and phantasm are aimed at very special forms of mystical purity. In his essay on Bataille, Klossowski argues that “the soul must expel all that it silently imagines: only through impure speech (une parole impure) can a soul hope to [ultimately] rest in its silence, in the silence through which it exists, no longer being anything but that silence.” The remark is hermetic, but it seems that the pursuit of love (in Klossowski’s sense) could be added to this yearning for silence and that what he longed for could likewise result only from a long process of purification: the continual expression of, and subsequent exorcism of, troubling mental images.

Nearly all of Klossowski’s fiction was written during a fifteen-year period, ranging from the quasi-autobiographical La vocation suspendue (1950), concerning his religious crisis during the Second World War (when he studied theology in Saint-Maximin, Lyons, and Paris), to the intentionally anachronistic tale, Le Baphomet. Before this period, Klossowski had translated and penned essays (some of which are collected in Écrits d’un monomane: essais 1933-1939, 2001, and Un si funeste désir, 1963), though he later rejected some of this earlier work, remarking (in a letter cited in the critical collection Pierre Klossowski, 1985) that he considered Roberte Ce Soir as the “decisive rupture,” after which he understood that “thought could only be interpreted by means of the imagination, not the contrary.”

Toward the end of the 1960s, he stopped writing almost completely. As he evolved from the art of aligning words to the studied use of line and color, his career paralleled that of Louis-René des Forêts (1918-2000), whose haunting story Le Malheur au Lido, written in homage to Klossowski (it bears the dedication “for Octave”), offers an oblique introduction to the latter’s sensibility. Both writers moved from storytelling to an increasing use of dialogue (a literary form that, compared to description, they considered nearer reality), and from dialogue to what Klossowski called the “mute gestures” of drawing. In other words, both writers eventually adopted an almost permanent writerly silence during their last years, seeking out a more direct means of reproducing mental images. Des Forêts did eventually work on a final prose masterwork, Ostinato.

In Klossowski, this evolution does not really derive from an admission of creative impossibility (coupled with the Beckettian necessity of continuing to create, of “going on”), but rather from an all-exclusive drive to get as close as possible to the most basic phenomena of life, to the most potent gestures of aliveness. It is arresting that his quest entails not a solitary individual casting a hard eye at his existence, but rather an individual intimately linked to one or more other individuals. As Klossowski contemplated human beings together, the notion of “gestures” that would be suggestive of countless, perhaps mutually contradictory consequences came to fascinate him. Such primordial gestures or poses could not honestly be described: they were necessarily pre- or nonverbal. At this point in the man’s creative soul-searching (he was in his late sixties), literature was sacrificed for art. As for the writings that appeared before this radical turn, they are not meant to “please” or “amuse” (though they are not without humor); and some long passages try the reader’s patience. But what remains admirable is this intent author’s relentless urge to go ever further upstream, to get behind discourse and conceptualization, to stalk desire and movement as they manifest themselves in all their multivarious potential. And then to craft fitting simulacra of what he has glimpsed; that is, disquieting representations of something still further upstream, at a mysterious fountainhead that cannot truly be described, or fully seen, or touched.

Selected Works by Pierre Klossowski in Translation

The Baphomet. Trans. Sophie Hawes and Stephen Sartarelli. Marsilio Publishers, $14.95.
Diana at Her Bath/The Women of Rome. Trans. Sophie Hawes and Stephen Sartarelli. Marsilio Publishers, $14.95.
Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. University of Chicago Press, $25.00.
Roberte Ce Soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Trans. Austryn Wainhouse. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.50.
Sade My Neighbor. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Northwestern University Press, $17.00.

Selected Untranslated Works

L’Adolescent immortel. Éditions Gallimard, €15.00.
Écrits d’un monomane: essais 1933-1939. Éditions Gallimard, €19.95.
Les lois de l’hospitalité. Out of Print.
Le mage du nord. Out of Print.
La Monnaie vivante. Joelle Losfeld, €11.50.
Origines culturelles et mythiques d’un certain comportement des dames romaines. Out of Print.
Pierre Klossowski. Ludion, €24.39.
Roberte et Gulliver. Fata Morgana, €9.00.
Un si funeste désir. Éditions Gallimard, €8.38.
Tableaux vivants: essais critiques 1936-1983. Éditions Gallimard, €20.58.
La vocation suspendue. Éditions Gallimard, €5.64.

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