- Revisiting Pierre Guyotat’s Éden, Éden, ÉdenSplanchnology, Writing, Matter, and the Devastation of Ethics
We pass, and she abides.We conjugate Her SkillWhile She creates and federatesWithout a syllable.(Emily Dickinson 811)
By the time his second major publication appeared in 1970, a thirty-year-old Pierre Guyotat was already considered an exceptionally talented avant-garde writer, having published his first major work, Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats (Tomb for 500,000 soldiers), to no small amount of critical acclaim three years earlier. However, this new work, Éden, Éden, Éden (Eden, Eden, Eden), proved to be a radically different piece from the previous one and was to have a much more difficult reception. Tombeau was an extended epic comprising equal parts war and sex that persisted in using—if in fantastic and unexpected ways—conventional techniques of composition like characterisation and a relatively sequential narrative. Éden, on the other hand, jettisoned these tropes, trading characterisation for a constellation of (often sexual; often violent) activities unfettered by actors, and cumulative narrative for a cacophony of simultaneous, sometimes orgiastic, events frequently indiscernible from one another. Public response to the work was one of both confusion and consternation which took issue, in particular, with its more graphic sexual representations; upon publication, the French Ministry for the Interior found that Éden’s “licentious, pornographic character”1 and its depiction of violence posed such a significant danger to the youth of the state that it had to be censored.2 This censorship took the form of a tripartite interdiction, banning sale of the work to minors, its exposure to the general public and any promotion of it through publicity. The French intelligentsia jumped immediately to the work’s defence, condemning what they [End Page 31] perceived to be the unjust repression of legitimate artistic expression and demanding an instant repeal of the ban. A petition was launched against what was called “the arbitrary usage of a law which was originally intended for the protection of the youth … its meaning manifestly distorted” (Guyotat, Littérature Interdite 190) and counted among its many signatories such notable figures as Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Cayrol, Jacques Derrida, Marguerite Duras, Michel Foucault, Michel Leiris, Robert Pinget and Jean-Paul Sartre. Even François Mitterrand, in an interrogation of the First Minister in November 1970, used the case of Éden’s censorship as a prime example of what he perceived to be governmental abuse of power (Brun 226). In spite of these efforts the Ministry remained deaf to all appeals and the ban remained in place for more than a decade, until it was lifted by Mitterrand himself in 1981.
1. The Coagulation of Consensus: Material Ethics
The censorship of Éden and its subsequent place at the heart of debates on artistic freedom and the power of the State, earned the work a reputation as an exercise in transgression. A consensus gradually emerged which held that if Éden had been censored then it was because the novel’s aim was the subversion of normative and bourgeois notions of morality through a provocative representation of violent sexual desire. Advocates of the work extolled the virtues of this, drawing Guyotat under the same standard as a whole tradition of transgressive French writers like Sade, Genet, Bataille and Artaud, reading in his poetics, as in theirs, a programme for libidinal revolution. Philippe Sollers, for instance, sought to establish a direct correlation between Guyotat and Sade, perceiving between them an unbroken continuum instantiated by the latter’s statement in 1783 that “there is nothing as beautiful as sex and there is no salvation without it” (qtd., 277). While Michel Foucault, in an open letter to Guyotat published in the Nouvel Observateur in September 1970, credited Éden with the subversion of reified categories of sexuality and with giving voice to the great, subterranean force of sex:
Reading you[r work], I can’t help thinking … that you are … equal to the height (or depth, if you prefer) of what we have known of sexuality for the last half-century: that it is not a measure of the individual, a style of relation between one and other, a means...