The Hospital of History: Guy Hocquenghem’s The Amphitheater of the Dead

By Cam Scott |

Few figures of the French left are as non-forthcoming in posterity, let alone English translation, as Guy Hocquenghem. Author of the influential monograph Homosexual Desire and a founding member of le Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire, Hocquenghem both preconfigures the ascendance of “queer theory” as a specialization, and frequently appears to reject many of its projects and positions in advance. Contrary and conjunctural, his theses remain fiercely personal, which befits his cause; for sexuality baffles the empty universality of much political address, insofar as it introduces a contingency with the urgency of a demand—homosexuality, and not just homosexuals, appears to want something by way of desirous redress.

This tension crystallizes a compelling theme of Hocquenghem’s work—desire itself as an historically produced situation, to which his living subject is obliged. Homosexual desire, the namesake of his influential text, does not exist, Hocquenghem insists, except a posteriori. “Capitalist society manufactures homosexuals just as it produces proletarians, constantly defining its own limits.” [1] This is not, however, a homology upon which the project of a ‘gay communism’ might come to rest, for in Hocquenghem’s description, both subjects are produced by a set of conditions to which they are eventually opposed, but not identically. In a sense, Hocquenghem stands out amongst his fellow soixante-huitards as a theorist of identity, however reluctant, rather than of action, and his contrarianism concerns this difference in emphasis. Furthermore, this obliges Hocquenghem to questions of both narrative and style—crucial operators of gay identity, the terms of which must be recreated in an adverse society.

Homosexual desire does not exist, Hocquenghem insists, except a posteriori.

Then one quarrelsome guise in which a present readership inherits Hocquenghem is that of a self-styled revisionist. How could one live otherwise, Hocquenghem appears to ask, when the content of experience is largely unforeseeable, and politics entails a certain fidelity to form? Elsewhere, in an existential turn of phrase, Élisabeth Roudinesco describes the philosophical heroism of those who risked the futurity of their oeuvre in submission to historical circumstance. The necessity of action excludes any psychological subject altogether, Roudinesco claims, and produces a tragic figure. [2] In Hocquenghem’s caustic appraisal of May 1968, a worse fate befalls the individual in the aftermath of defeated struggle: “there’s no longer any point in acting, struggling, writing, cries the tragic voice.” Hocquenghem describes a reactionary post-history, a non-age of scarcely differentiated flows. Here, without a revolutionary signifier, “there is no subject at all.” And yet, his double-edged requiem to militancy can’t but attribute despair, to a voice that cries out as a witness to a thwarted event.

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In anticipation

Perhaps a version of this voice narrates Hocquenghem’s posthumous memoir-of-sorts, The Amphitheater of the Dead, which appears this year in an English translation by Max Fox. Set in the year 2018, thirty years after the author’s death from complications of AIDS, the book is billed as an “anticipated memoir,” predicting a future in which HIV is a manageable condition and an object of biopolitical investment rather than a death sentence. This strange futurity commends these recollections to our present, where palpable advances in treatment and prevention have realized Hocquenghem’s modest science fiction. At the same time, his words resonate as a bittersweet cenotaph, for these improved standards are no benefit to their prophesier.

Hocquenghem produced this manuscript within weeks of his death, which final burst of creativity he transposes to the twilight of a Biblically alloted lifespan: “I’m 70 years old. For thirty years, I’ve believed I’m going to die tomorrow, or at least in the next three weeks; I don’t know why, but this delay is the exact measure of my medical misery.” [3] The question of subjective measure drives the obsessive fulminations of the text. As a young man, Hocquenghem explains, he had vowed never to live past forty, a post-Rimbauldian goalpost for precocious youth who wish posterity to be visited upon their gorgeous years. This quintessentially literary fallacy, where by never growing old one may remain forever young, motivates this text at its fantastic basis: “Writing saves,” the dying author explains. “Doctors are experts. The drive which is at the origin of a book assures a whole lifespan. You don’t die while writing a novel.” [4]

This wishful temporality not only resonates with the existential predicament of being toward death, but shapes the fated text, set to terminate upon the author’s “next infection.” [5] A paradoxical aspect of the autobiographical drive reveals itself here; for life-writing is largely conditioned by the interval of composition, and the uneventful time of retrospection can’t encompass the eventuality of trauma, even in anticipation of its wake. Writing arrests the interregnum. Symptomatically perhaps, Argentine writer Macedonio Fernandez describes his ideal book as an immortalizing technology, “a mnemonic personality eternity,” within the bounds of which nobody dies. [6] In this respect, the novel enacts what physical love cannot—it secures the immortality of the beloved alongside that of the author.

Hocquenghem describes his post-dated memoir in amenable terms: “In the end, my literature will look like my life, borrow the remains of my life, which has fictionalized itself for thirty years already,” he states with mortal certainty. [7] This pre-novelized alternative reality forms the personal basis of Hocquenghem’s testament, which could not be other than it has become: “It’s why, a little cruelly, I say sometimes that my youth was the only youth the world has known, even until now.” [8] If Hocquenghem’s vocation ensures his survival, as both author and object of text, the terms in which his lover, R., responds to his diagnosis are revealing: “the most enraging thing is that, in ten years, you would have become a popular novelist,” R. fumes on Hocquenghem’s behalf. [9] In the alternative 2018 that Hocquenghem projects, he is become just that—a celebrated author, nonetheless knowingly embarked upon his final project.

“if anyone other than death could say they were at home in the hospital, it was him.”

This authorizing purview places the writer, nevertheless mortal, somewhat at odds with and outside of history. At some length Hocquenghem describes an elderly survivor who has lived for decades in and out of care: “the whole hospital staff knew his history; and as they knew he was a writer, a warm atmosphere of understanding gentleness surrounded him as soon as he passed through the examining room doors. After all, if anyone other than death could say they were at home in the hospital, it was him.” [10] This fantasy, of a mutual recognition that transpires between technicians of the body and the self-appointed chroniclers of its affairs, poignantly miniaturizes Hocquenghem’s grander claims concerning a possible pact between physical endurance and social posterity.

Chance and Identity

“I don’t believe people die until they’ve done their work,” remarked W.H. Auden, “and when they have, they die. There are surprisingly few incomplete works in art. People, as a rule, die when they wish to. It is not a shame that Mozart, Keats, Shelley died young: they’d finished their work.” [11] This seems superstitious on one hand, and truistic on the other. It would feel metaphysically dubious to suggest that the potentiality shored in the living person John Keats could exceed his capacity for its realization; to restate Auden’s provocation atheistically, one might offer that anything Keats didn’t write, he couldn’t have.

This circumspection feels impossible to maintain in the cases of death from AIDS, however, which differ from other, less collective forms of political assassination. From a tragic-triumphalist perspective, politicized death has the effect of post hoc historical conscription where a popular response confers narrative necessity to an otherwise senseless state of affairs. In the case of AIDS something different transpires, for this popular capacity to respond is itself threatened. The mortal subject of this affliction is collective life itself, or such was the morbid teleology that appeared at the height of the plague; which, one must insist, continues in many communities with genocidal salience today. In the penultimate chapter of Homosexual Desire, Hocquenghem theorizes a group formation “stronger than death” because it supersedes the individual: “The homosexual subject group—circular and horizontal, annular and with no signifier—knows that civilization alone is mortal.” [12] And yet he wrote in a moment when civilization threatened to outlive many of its subjects.

This affliction of the social also threatens any literary solution. What is a book without a reader, what is a tragic hero with no chorus? For Hocquenghem and Auden alike, narrative appears to lend necessity to happenstance; whereas in the cases of death from AIDS, one confronts an irremediable contingency. (This is why any conservative language of ‘risk’ sounds instantly obscene.) Naturally, all deaths are truncating and desolatory; but AIDS shows us something of the fateful situation of the desiring subject whose desires are socially foreclosed. Desire is not an ahistorical posit here, but conditioned. I’m speaking of the alignment by which one selects actions rather than outcomes, and where the latter remains at every moment unthinkable within the logic of the former; a situation within which subjective necessity contradicts any practical agenda.

No one would die for anything if they didn’t have to die already; and tangentially, no one would speak of a closet if one didn’t have to choose to become what one already is.

Much as the rhetorical gambit insisting that queer life is auto-originating and pre-social—that one is “born this way”—obviates choice, making one a passive object of both desire and advocacy, plague logic sutures one’s identity to a means of suffering. In both cases, identity is mediated by the terms of a terrible social-historical obstacle to one’s (well-)being; and wherever there appears a tension between being and identity, universal and particular, a living person is likely to proceed by the latter term. Put otherwise, no one would die for anything if they didn’t have to die already; and tangentially, no one would speak of a closet if one didn’t have to choose to become what one already is.

The thought of AIDS—unthinkable from a subjective standpoint, that of desire—obliges one to consider contingency within a logic of identity. It may have seemed for a long, terrifying moment to some of my queer forebears that the wages of identity were death; but in no way was this ordained, nor in the final instance chosen. Nevertheless, the identity of homosexuality with suffering appears at a certain point in the history of its repression with the cynical persuasiveness of syllogism. Throughout the seventies Hocquenghem describes this expectation with requisite bitterness, as a straight fantasy, one which nevertheless manifests real effects and places the homosexual in contradiction to society. In 1972, this identification was the proposed site of a horizontal revolution. In 1988, however, Hocquenghem describes a palliative stasis, ameliorating the apparent contradiction and posing a serious question as to the stakes of reform as a means of survival. Throughout The Amphitheater of the Dead, Hocquenghem plots the becoming-thinkable of AIDS, its liveability and sociality, which corresponds to a broader acceptance, much as the AIDS epidemic visibilized prejudice.

Homosexual Desire

For all this, many fascinating passages of The Amphitheater of the Dead concern the same conceptual difficulties described in Homosexual Desire more than fifteen years earlier—namely, the relation between identity and politics. Recalling his youth, our narrator is not apparently politicized by homosexuality; rather, to take him at his word, he is effectively homosexualized by political activity during the nineteen-sixties, insofar as both commend transgression. This trajectory produces novel combinations in itself: as Hocquenghem confesses, “we had no idea of anything, of homo- or heterosexuality; only vice interested me.” [13] Refreshingly and frustratingly, the co-theories that issue from this spirit of experimentation are not seamless: “I have never stopped living in two registers,” Hocquenghem insists: “Homosexual on one side, militant on the other, and later writer and invalid, I always had something to hide from half of my relations.” [14]

Even the alleged synthesis of “sexual liberation” is falsely conciliatory in Hocquenghem’s view: “I became a leftist, like I became a homosexual, to belong to the Circle,” he avers in a self-pathologizing bout of explanation. [15] Nonetheless, his desire to be the opposition of the opposition appears less mercenary than flirtatious; no sooner than his reader grows frustrated at this caginess, there appears a heartbreaking passage in which Hocquenghem is confronted by a homophobic comrade about his sexuality and plays Peter to his own proclivities: “a response I am still ashamed of a half-century later,” he writes. [16]

“I always had something to hide from half of my relations.”

The figures upon which a budding sexuality comes to fixate metamorphose over the course of recollection; a misaddressed letter of recommendation handed to a teacher soon to be a lover, an unexpected death and a consoling proximity, the excitement of the barricades, experimentation with a panoply of substances. “This is what frightens me about life’s choices: they are such fruits of chance and habit.” [17] Breathtakingly, without an afterword, the memoir ends in the midst of a chemical bacchanal in California, an absent signpost of the author’s passing. This startling non-ending secures one of the “surprisingly few incomplete works in art,” attesting to the unfinishable negativity of its author’s being.

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Beyond Finality

In the work of David Scott, contingency appears a term roughly synonymous with attunement to the particulars of the present time. [18] Where contingency entails a certain tragic acquiescence before finitude in Scott’s description, he refines his thought in a one-sided correspondence with the late Stuart Hall, for whom the concept was decidedly more open. Both thinkers agree, Scott says, that contingency entails a slight to agency; but much depends on how one opposes this relative circumscription. Where Hall counsels practice, oriented toward a common goal or horizon and in hopes of making history, Scott opts for the heroizing incomprehensibility of action, undertaken in relative ignorance of its ramifications. [19]

Hocquenghem himself grapples with the temptation to manifest heroism in the form of an act: “when I am certain, or at least very sure, for whatever reason, because one can irrevocably condemn oneself to dying imminently, then … Then, I will undertake a courageous act that stuns the world and makes me feel like I haven’t been useless.” [20] Adapting Roudinesco’s terms, one might suggest that this terroristic idyll falls short of heroism, for the daydreamer holds too much of himself in reserve. The act is not a practical forethought, nor any kind of punctuation. To think of a cathartic finish in such terms is only to assimilate the unthinkable to thought; to treat the matter of one’s personal negation as though it were a companion.

Hocquenghem’s subject position effectively refutes Roudinesco’s initial description of tragic praxis, for the vexed position of the homosexual in politics, in a sense pre-martyrized, changes the meaning of sacrifice. In Roudinesco’s more or less Kantian description, a political situation may require that one sacrifice desire to history; but Hocquenghem’s homosexual desire attempts precisely to evade this fatal limit, and there is a profundity to the manner in which he insists on the primacy of his written oeuvre and the suffering and community to which it attests.

The Amphitheater of the Dead is in some sense a way for Hocquenghem to fantastically evade the contingency of death—Scott speaks of one’s “last conjuncture,” after Hall’s key concept—projecting himself into a future that proves all too thinkable, and this fantastic bearing of the text reinscribes the life it sensuously depicts within history. This banalizing drive, directed at the day-to-day, may even contradict the solitude of death and deathly acts.

Hocquenghem presents the reader with an eerie afterimage of political utopia; of an extra-bodily politics rejecting separation for amorous congress…

Perhaps the eponymous amphitheater, a dissecting room that our ailing narrator visits in the days leading to his death, stands for a similar endeavor to the immortalizing work described above: “The dead, in the amphitheater in question, constitute not the audience but the spectacle itself, incessantly renewed, where one never performs more than once.” [21] In this, Hocquenghem not only asserts his own personal finitude, but movingly conveys the irredeemable time of one’s final performance to the fate of others gone before:

No matter; pushing open the pre-war steel doors pierced by portholes and entering the vast room with its glaucous light, I saw all my dead reunited, not somber and silent but agitated, breathlessly chirping, thrilled to see each other again. [22]

This overseeing viewpoint doubles as an invitational, welcoming comrades to an alternative society of those missing and excluded from the present time. Such a fantasy reunion is not simplistically wistful, nor does it only reflect a literary will to immortality. One might suggest that Hocquenghem presents the reader with an eerie afterimage of political utopia, where the finite body and its often painfully proscribed desires endure as meaningful representation; of an extra-bodily politics rejecting separation for amorous congress. Neither tragedy nor literary haunting, Hocquenghem’s text requests at least this much optimism of the time in which it is set.

***

[1] Guy Hocquenghem, translated by Daniella Dangoor. Homosexual Desire(Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 50.

[2] Élisabeth Roudinesco, translated by William McCuaig. Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 13.

[3] Guy Hocquenghem, translated by Max Fox. The Amphitheater of the Dead(New York: Guillotine Press, 2019), 21.

[4] Ibid, 29.

[5] Ibid, 30.

[6] Macedonio Fernandez, translated by Margaret Schwartz. The Museum of Eterna’s Novel: The First Good Novel(Rochester; Open Letter, 2010), 59.

[7] Hocquenghem, 32.

[8] Ibid, 35.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 51.

[11] W.H. Auden, edited by Arthur Kirsch. Lectures on Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 296.

[12] Hocquenghem 2003, 147.

[13] Hocquenghem, 60.

[14] Ibid, 64.

[15] Ibid, 84.

[16] Ibid, 89.

[17] Ibid, 84.

[18] David Scott, Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 55.

[19] Ibid, 81.

[20] Hocquenghem, 30.

[21] Ibid, 20.

[22] Ibid.

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