Mar 102016
 

gayraud3-001Joël Gayraud

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Selections from La peau de l’ombre (The Shadow’s Skin)
by Joël Gayraud,
With permission of Editions José Corti, 2004. 239 pp.

Composed of 410 fragments [17 of which appear below], Joël Gayraud’s seductive work belongs to a grand tradition that stretches from seventeenth-century moralists like Baltasar Gracián to Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Arranged in agreeable disorder, following an approach that gives pride of place as much to reverie as to conceptual thought, to poetry as to revolutionary theory, the texts weave together themes as diverse as dreaming, revolt, utopia, death, childhood, telepathy, and atheism.

Inspired by Castiglione and Nietzsche, Leopardi and Bakunin, Fourier and Benjamin, Gayraud is at once a dreamer—“I am one of those who wake up only to continue dreaming”—and a rebel. An immoderate love of revolt courses through his maxims and inspires such sparkling formulations as: “No one ever revolts too much . . . . It is with revolt as with love: excess gives them life.” It is a logical revolt that comes from afar and “draws its legitimacy not only from the injustice that causes it, but from the immemorial past of rebellion that grounds the human in man”; a permanent revolt that, as soon as it “annexes all historical experience,” develops “into a revolutionary strategy”; a revolt, finally, that could not be reduced to narrow-minded quantitative causes: “The insurgents of 1848, the Communards, or the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square fought less for having (bread, work) than for being (communism, freedom).”

Claiming an ethics of “the internal subversion of the reality principle,” Gayraud does not hide his attraction for surrealism, “the only major attempt to reenchant the world on a secularized magical-mythical basis,” an effort consciously turned towards the future, and aimed at accessing the marvellous of things themselves “as a poiesis immanent to the world.”

Michaël Löwy
review of La peau de l’ombre published in S.U.RR.. 5 (2005)

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Gayraud (born 1953) has written on and translated both classical and modern authors, including Ovid, Giacomo Leopardi, Primo Levi, and Giorgio Agamben. His own, often loosely biographical writings, steeped in the double legacy of surrealism and situationism, comprise not only critical essays, fragments and aphorisms, but also poems and short stories as well as children’s books. These have appeared in collections (Clairière du rêve, 2010, Passage public, 2012, Ocelles, 2014) and in numerous radical and surrealist journals in France, French Canada, and the UK. He lives in Paris, where he taught classics until his retirement.

168. The development of sadomasochistic practices contributes more effectively than many revolutionary discourses to undermining the psychological foundations of power. When, in the intimacy of their bedroom, couples experimented with the game of submission and dominance—even where the sexual roles themselves remain uncriticized, the mere fact that this game took place enables the objectification of old fantasies of domination and slavery—fantasies that, as a consequence of the brutal and barbaric establishment of relations of domination, have been buried deep in the breast of humanity. Aggression, whose sublimation can only rarely be satisfying and whose repression perverts and turns it outward, against society, finds here its direct expression. Above all, however, the pleasure shared as much by the dominant partner as by the submissive one, who incidentally often swap roles, initiates them into a veritable communism of pleasure, experienced as a perfectly antagonistic representation of the social economy. It is then the exercise of exclusive power that appears as a sinister perversion, founded as it is on the capitalization of pleasure and its exclusive appropriation. Everyone who, thanks to sadomasochistic practice, each night purges their self of the libido dominandi by giving it playful satisfaction, albeit one leading to real mutual pleasure, cannot but find the pretension to social domination laughable, ridiculous, and a sign of frustration and mediocrity.

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1Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015).

244. When I first discovered the beautiful photographs by Paul Nash dating back to the Second World War and showing the carcasses of aircraft that had been shot down, it became clear to me that the inorganic often takes on the appearance of the organic in its obsolescence or destruction. A plane in working order only lets itself be perceived as a simple machine upon which we look with indifferent eyes, except when we are dealing with a new model, in which case it is the machine’s novelty, even its aesthetic, that attracts us. That attraction, however—except owing to highly particular affective connotations—remains wholly intellectual; in truth, we do not doubt for a second that we are in the presence of the purely inorganic. By contrast, in these images of machinery that had crashed to the ground, I saw not a simple heap of metal but an organic system fixed at an arbitrary moment of its decomposition, the twisted scrap iron, the battered cabins, the gaping and rusted motors, forever out of operation, resembling mangled flesh, eviscerated and mutilated bodies—which did not fail to silently stir through the keyboard of my sensibility the strings of a perfectly licit sadism.

In retrospect, I should clarify that, when looking at these images, I never for a moment thought of the crew that had perished in this mass of metal. And, as added proof that I was not guided by this idea even unconsciously, I remember having experienced similar jubilation before an old dismantled rotary press, a gutted piano, or, to go back even farther in my memory, a tube radio meticulously taken apart by a child’s hands. More recently, and this time on the scale of a landscape, I had an analogous impression of Coney Island, having wandered around the old amusement park entirely abandoned to the elements and wild vegetation: the scenic railway and roller coaster, come to a halt, their carcasses covered in a shroud of rust, had acquired a kind of organicity that one could never have attributed to them at the time of their functioning, when their full operation rendered them emotionally invisible. It is doubtless the attainment of irreparability that makes all these metal creatures approach the intimate sense of our own precariousness.

2Paul Nash 1889-1946. Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump 1940 © Tate (2015)

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181. Just as those seventeenth-century still lifes showing a bowl of fruit, fish fresh out of the water, or a table sagging beneath a heap of venison have only ever provoked my boredom and even repugnance, so, on the other hand, I have always taken pleasure in representations of inanimate objects of everyday life, such as can frequently be seen in the vanitas of the same period. It seems that, if the still life’s immediate effect is to reify the organic entities it depicts, it has the opposite effect on objects and things. The latter, appearing not simply juxtaposed as in a catalogue but, rather, assembled as parts of a whole delimited by the painting’s frame, are elevated to the dignity of organs in a new body, which is that of the painting itself. Such compositions break with the naturalism of their predecessors and, in their mannerism, foreshadow the symbolic function of objects in surrealism or in the boxes of a Joseph Cornell.

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204. Sometimes when fixing one’s gaze on a rock from a particular vantage point one sees emerge from it the head or the body of a human or an animal. Never, in my experience and in those I have heard recounted on this score, does one see objects that are manufactured or animal forms too removed from us, such as fragments of insects. There is, nevertheless, nothing in the form of the rock that would prevent one from finding them. Doubtless it is that we do not want to find them and hold on to a narcissistic mimetism that makes us search for our of own face or for animals most familiar to us, such as those we have domesticated or those that people our fantasies, our dreams, and especially our nightmares—lions, stags, bears, horses, dragons, and other monsters hailing from mythology enriched by the discoveries of paleontology. Man must no doubt have very quickly understood that nature liked to imitate itself, but that this mimesis was not worried about exactitude and realism in representation; rather, it deformed in stone what had been formed in the flesh, it stylized its features, practicing a kind of abstraction and fetishization of certain elements in detaching them from the whole, in treating them in isolation, in enlarging or shrinking them, in thus playing with the proportions of the different elements being represented. This representation, by nature radically alien to the idea of symmetry, is that of contours and profiles. It is, it seems, the first to have been tried by prehistoric artists. And if we began representing the human face only much later, it is probably because the mask was in use for a very long time.

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243. Unlike the dialectic of Plato, based on distinction (in the Phaedrus, the dialectician is modelled on the butcher skilled in carving up beasts following the joints of the meat), the dialectic of Heraclitus is based on analogy—on real analogy, which is to say one that grasps the relation of coming together that exists in being. Indeed, if the opposition of two forces lets the bow be drawn and to send an arrow, it must be that these two forces act simultaneously and without mediation. The author of this double action is the archer, but the analogy exists in the very structure of the bow independently of him. Every bow in good condition, thus true to its concept, is capable of shooting an arrow. Put differently, in every bow there already exists the analogy allowing it to actualize the arrow’s flight.

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259. Our inclination will be to accrue the implicit and the vague, to multiply paradoxes, but also to enhance the lenses of vision so as to make of the smooth surface of things a landscape deeply cut with valleys, bristling with wild mountain ranges, riddled with potholes and crevasses, in order to rediscover the labyrinth of the living beneath the cellophane of scientific certainty. This is precisely what Leopardi did when, in his Zibaldone, in a striking change of focus, he describes a charming garden in flower as a “vast hospital” or battlefield where all of life’s suffering and consubstantial violence are deployed.

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262. The bones of six million Parisians are piled pell-mell in the hollows of the catacombs, and in all of Paris’s twenty arrondissements there are at present just over two million souls. If all the dead rose to lead us in a danse macabre, each of us would have three skeletons as partners for a quadrille.

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248. When our parents tell us they had wanted us, they unwittingly deceive us, since first of all they deceive themselves. It is not us, the being whom they address today, that they desired; what they wanted was a child, not this child they then watched grow up. This one here, despite all the ultrasounds, amniocenteses, and karyotype tests that reassured them of its normality, they were utterly incapable of expecting. And so we are brought down to the level of the supposed unwanted unfortunate, which should cut our narcissism and self-confidence down to size. The desire for a child is always a desire for any child, a desire to create whatever entity, ens quodlibet. The scholastic category of quodlibetality, “whatever being,” is here eminently applicable: as wanted or unwanted beings, we are ontologically whatever.

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263. Historians are the eunuchs charged with guarding the seraglio of truth. Although they have the privilege of seeing it naked, they can never conjoin with it, and never let it go out without first wrapping it in its veil.

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267. The first Greek philosopher of atheism was called Theodorus, which means “gift of the gods.” For the best that the divine has to offer us is the capacity for negation, all the way to negating the divine itself.

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287. A dog plays with a man like a child, but its gaze is not that of the child, laughing and reaching for the next moment. The eyes of a dog engaged in child-like play seem, to the contrary, the bearers of an immemorial wisdom. Its gaze is the profound and melancholy one of a sage who has passed through the infinite series of necessary experiences, each time drawing lessons and, in the end, understanding that not one of them merits being retained. He has no other choice than to arrange them in his memory as in a museum display case. It is something like a reflection of such useless and suspended knowledge that can be read in the eyes of an animal drawn by man into one of his games.

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322. If memory is the condition of knowledge, oblivion is the condition of experience.

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184. There is no passion so naked that it is not dressed in language.

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311. One of the watchwords of May ‘68 in France, as of the sixties the world over, was freedom of speech. But, even more than freedom, it was about the uncontrollable necessity of speech for all. Yet, little by little, the paradoxical injunction to “express yourself” spread, becoming an authoritarian commonplace as the movement ebbed away. This paradox of an injunction to freedom did not escape notice and emphasis among the fiercest enemies of freedom in its anti-utilitarian form, who lie in wait for anything that could put back into the service of capital what was meant to contest it. What is most remarkable, however, is that the wretches ordered to express themselves could say nothing, not because they had nothing to say, not because they were totally lacking the faculty of thought, but because it was obvious that the command line between ideas and speech remained, for them, incurably blocked. The world revealed itself as aphasic, which moreover has often been the case among the poorest and most isolated classes, such as peasants. One discovered, in effect, the full extent of the general proletarization of society: access to expression, free at last, opened onto a void. This is why the greatest triumph of humor at the time came from a comedian in overalls narrating the story of someone who had nothing to say, a storyteller with no story to tell, while managing to hold his audience spellbound for a good quarter of an hour.

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342. As Elias Canetti saw clearly, in contrast to Georg Lukács, it is the masses and not the proletariat who were the subject of history in the twentieth century; in other words, a subject paradoxically deprived of attributes necessary for the definition of a subject; a subject without consciousness; a headless, acephalous subject or, just as good, one whose head is interchangeable. It is on this enormous body of the masses that the evil genius of history grafted the head of Mussolini, Lenin, Perón, Hitler, Nasser. There were, of course, a certain number of positive heroes like Makhno, Zapata, and Durutti, who precisely did not want to play this little role of head. We know what fate was reserved for them.

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213. Finding its roots is not a preoccupation of the wild plant—to which it never occurred it could lose them—but of the unhappy potted bonsai.

—Joël Gayraud, translated by S.D. Chrostowska

(NC wishes to thank Tate for permission to use the photographs included in the text — creativecommons@tate.org.uk.)

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chrostowka

Selected and translated from the French by S.D. Chrostowska

S.D. Chrostowska teaches at York University in Canada and is the author of Literature on Trial (UTP, 2012), Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and MATCHES, a collection of critical fragments (punctum, 2015).

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