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diacritics 35.1 (2005) 119-135

Evaluating Klossowski's Le Baphomet
Ian James

Literature, under historical conditions which are not simply linguistic, has come to occupy a place which is always open to a kind of subversive juridicity. [. . .] This subversive juridicity supposes that self-identity is never assured or reassuring.

—Jacques Derrida, "Préjugés: Devant la loi"

The Controversy

On 14 June 1965, Roger Caillois resigned from the jury of the prestigious Prix des Critiques. His resignation was provoked by the majority decision of the jury to award the critics' prize that year to Klossowski's final novel, Le Baphomet.1 Le Baphomet, a singular, Walter Scott-inspired tale about the Knights Templar, is set, initially at least, at the beginning of the fourteenth century just before the dissolution of the Templar Order at the behest of the then French king, Philippe Le Bel. After the historical prologue the action is transferred to a seemingly atemporal sphere, where the disembodied souls of the former Knights Templar await the moment when the Last Judgment will be pronounced and they will be reunited once more with their earthly bodies. The setting, tone, and style are at first gothic, but with the appearance of the disembodied spirit of Saint Teresa of Avila baroque elements begin to dominate and to mix with evocations of Masonic and esoteric ritual, Gnostic heresy, and theological but also philosophical discussion. These are accompanied by the appearance of Philippe le Bel himself and the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, the "Antichrist," initially in the form of an anteater. With its unorthodox and often archaic vocabulary and syntax and, after the historical prologue, its discontinuous and fantastical narrative presentation, in which the boundaries between persons and identities appear permeable and insecure, Le Baphomet engages the reader in a textual experience that can be both baffling and obscure. It is also a work that can appear to lack any intellectual or formal coherence, one whose multiplicity and evident complexity may seem to promise rich possibilities of interpretation and literary value but whose narrative disorder and stylistic singularity can ultimately leave the reader frustrated with the sense of having been exposed to something of a literary mess.

This, at least, was the view of Roger Caillois when he resigned in protest at the decision of the Prix des Critiques jury to confer its honor on Klossowski's novel. Caillois was himself a singular writer whose work can be situated at the intersection of a [End Page 119]

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number of disciplines, including mythology, sociology, aesthetics, biology, and literary criticism. He had known Klossowski since 1936, when they collaborated along with Georges Bataille and others in the antifascist avant-garde grouping Contre-Attaque and then later, again with Bataille, on the review Acéphale and in the Collège de sociologie.2 Defending his resignation from the Prix des Critiques jury a few days after the event, Caillois published an article in Le Monde in which he drew attention to what he saw as Le Baphomet's primary weakness: its poor formal organization and in particular what he perceived as its stylistic insufficiency and grammatical inaccuracy.3 Perhaps with the desire to avoid accusations of prudery or Puritanism he denied that the content of the work was the cause of his disapproval. The infatuation of certain Knights Templar with an adolescent page, Ogier de Beaséant, oblique references to possible acts of sodomy, together with the stylized description of scenes involving mutilation, penetration, and ejaculation are all elements of the narrative. On the content of the work Caillois writes: "Some may see in this a novelistic exposé of an original and subtle theology, others only mystico-pederastic rubbish. For a literary prize I hold solely to the literary value of a work." According to Caillois the content of such a work may be interesting or absurd depending on one's tastes but has nothing to do with its literary value. The invocation of literary value, here, necessarily implies a set of criteria for the judgment of the standing of a work...


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