Reproach, rapprochement

Nathanaël on Hervé Guibert

J'ai besoin de catastrophes, de coups de théâtre.
—Hervé Guibert

With its vital concern for proximate agonies, translation owes something crucial to vigilation for its protean form. If translation offers itself as literature's wake, it is because it is already so suffused with morbid abidance—it can only present itself in catastrophic echo to what it might otherwise be. Which is to say that translation is nothing other than the matter of death itself, ruminated, deformed and devoured by its own attempts, verging on murderous complacency, duplicitous in its desiring. Mortific matter, as it were, immaterialised. Translation's reproach, then, which operates a paradoxical rapprochement, exists, of necessity, in the protraction of a work's cadaveric resistances. The deliberate misapprehension of these androgynous terms—reproach conjoined to rapprochement—make evident the untenable collusion between otherwise symbiotic signs. To near, in this instance, is to injure; and injury, which is inimical to intimacy, takes the unexpected posture of an injunction.


If Hervé Guibert's Le mausolée des amants inflects Jean Genet's strange word, it is precisely in its attentiveness to the necessary conjunction of death's exquisite theatre (the cemetery) to the city centre. Apprehensive, for the vitality of theatre, of the progressive removal of the cemetery from the urban clutch, Genet enjoins the fixed act that judges itself, gauging an architectural imperative for immobilisation. His impetus, an Italian theatre of moving parts, which he determines to be antithetical to a formal ethics, founds a basis for historical responsibility. It will be judged on its form. If rigor mortis is to be understood as absolute immobility, then Genet is striving for an ethics of deadliness in which the formal structure of (theatrical) architecture inescapably implements this injunction. Hervé Guibert's journals, which assume the structure of a mausoleum populated with lovers, transform the responsibility to deteriorating vital impulses into morbid fixity. The undated notes in these pages, recorded over a too-brief decade and a half (1976-1991), foreground, as elsewhere in Guibert's work, a preoccupation with death's vernacular and its attendant familiars—phantoms, shrouds, corpses, and the like. They demand to be read as instantiations of desire, which is to say as an exigent force of vitality, rather than a want for literalised mortification; the morgue in Guibert's phantasm is an expedient textual goad, not a remote foreclosure.

While the body, for Guibert, functions as a theatre of the catastrophal—reiterating (without being repetitive) instances of desire—its supplicated other exists in the insatiate epoch of the photographic instantané, or momental photo—the event of light, in Guibert's semantic—which wishes to absolve itself of subjectivity.

L'ami, an equivocal substantive in French, tending at once toward friend and lover, figures prominently in both the caustic novel, À l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauvé la vie, in which Guibert wrote unapologetically of living with the AIDS virus, and as the title of a much discussed black and white photograph taken in 1980, in which an arm (the photographer's), outstretched, and visible to the camera, presses against a bare chest, suggesting intimate resistance, figuring the real distance from the aperture to the desired lover, and the vulnerable authority of seeing, a sensuous mise-en-abyme of being seen. Guibert insists, in Le seul visage: Je crois que mon cas, dans la photographie, n'a d'intérêt que dans ma résistance à la photographie... Guibert's resistance is twain with an avowed duplicity, a duplicity that is already present in the disjunction between his writing, which he characterises as unbridled, and without scruples; and his photography, with its share of constraint (limited, for example, to instances proffered by travel, by multiple elsewheres) —contrary and rapt.

With an eye to obsolescent acception, rapt is photography's behest. Already in the photographic prise (or 'take'), there is the simultaneous suggestion of sexual predation and theft, such that the gesture, interpretable as offering, is not ever altruistic. There is cruelty in it; the prise is a solipsistic act of vandalism; the catch, of course, is in the inescapability of the subject's subjection to his own motives. Why belabour the point of seeing?

The Mausoleum's spur is epistolary. As with Guibert's novel, L'image fantôme, in which T. figures both in the dedication, as a refugee from the roman général, and in the text itself, The Mausoleum of Lovers is first imagined as an open letter to T., Hervé's quintessential ami. If Genet has been called up in this conversation, just as Hermann Ungar, Franz Kafka, Peter Handke, or Thomas Bernhard might be, it is with a precise dialogic inflection in mind. The usual reliance on lineage as determining for establishing relations between texts and at times their authors is undercut by the journal's—and Guibert's—anticipatory attentiveness to extinction. If the work presents itself as a novel avant la lettre, it is consigned, by its very writing, to a mode of apprehension; the low, inescapable pall, of having been. Guibert is burying himself, alive. Not after, but with. Thus are the voices gathered by his pen conversant with, and not precursors to, his vigilous phantasm, permanently eradicating the text's time signature (note, for example, the absence of dates on the individual entries).


Toward the end of L'image fantôme, the question, Pourquoi m'as-tu tant photographié? receives this reply: Je n'ai pas l'impression de t'avoir beaucoup photographié. Je t'ai certainement moins photographié que je n'en ai eu envie. Je ne sais d'ailleurs pas pourquoi je te photographie... peut-être parce que je ne peux pas te caresser... L'image fantôme is a photographic pretext, a textual photograph, in which no actual photos appear. A scripting of le désespoir de l'image, it invokes an intimate amnesia, the perennial obverse of the photograph's destruction of memory. Enlarging this photographic tendency, with epistolary intent, The Mausoleum of Lovers is a persistent tender toward that which, imminently, escapes it: a present, with its foregone proximities.

—Chicago, September 2012


Click here to read an excerpt from Hervé Guibert's journals translated by Nathanaël, also in the October 2012 issue.