:: Article

Dustan Revisited

By Daniel Culpan.

France is one of the few countries that cares enough about its writers to put them on TV — even if to damn, rather than glorify, its literary darlings. In the early ‘00s, the reigning enfant terrible of French letters, Guillaume Dustan, turned these on-screen inquisitions into a compulsive art form. Brattish, insouciant, wearing a trashy blond wig or full leathers, he riled pundits with a series of taunting, provocative postures — exhorting gay men to ditch condoms or arguing that homophobic insults should be prosecuted (yes, still a radical idea in 2002) — all the while infusing the characteristic Gallic shrug with new levels of jaded contempt.

Dustan’s novels — minimalist, amoral chronicles of gay male promiscuity — were first published in the mid-‘90s: a time when the ravages of the AIDS crisis were finally, if already too late, being countered by anti-retrovirals and the new liberal pieties of a hitherto impotent political class. Yet Dustan’s novels, including his debut, Dans ma chambre (1996), look back on the post-plague years of Paris with a gelid eye.

Almost chillingly apolitical and bored by his own reckless hedonism, the narrator streamlines his life to a circuit of casual, unfulfilling sex, clubbing and bar crawling through Paris’ gay scene. The deadening quest for pure sensation, unlatched from anything but fleeting release with other nameless denizens of this shadow world, is heightened by the brute rhythms of Dustan’s prose: a studied affectlessness that’s almost hypnotic. Flirting with his own banality, the narrator sacrifices everything to the exigencies of the carnal — worrying about what to wear, his hairstyle, even what he should eat, to ensure optimum viability in the cruelly exacting sexual marketplace. These obsessive evocations of a gay ghetto of bars and casual sex, modelling itself closely on late-capitalist values of repetition-compulsion and instant gratification, are wilfully perverse celebrations of impersonal intimacy: an anti-assimilationist cri de coeur that riled critics, gay and straight alike. For one of the strange ironies of AIDS was that it became the perfect PR piece for a new, conservative gay agenda: a crusade for nuclear family values and middlebrow bourgeois respectability, alienated from any kind of liberationist critique of the status quo. It was only through the scourge of AIDS that homosexual identity could be redeemed, safely rehabilitated into the family, with gay men remade into victims deserving of sympathetic interventions and public pity.

Writing against this narrative of suffering and ersatz redemption, Dustan incarnated an impish, cavalier irresponsibility. Wearing his HIV-positive status as a perverse badge of courage, it often seemed as if he had inherited a Genet-esque talent for turning the usual moral paradigms inside out. As a fierce and unapologetic advocate of ‘barebacking’ — anal sex without condoms — Dustan aligned the seeking of pleasure with a kind of drive towards oblivion. The transcendence of sex — the shattering potential of desire to both master and unmake us — hinted at a dark truth that Dustan made disturbingly explicit: was sex worth dying for?

This Dionysian sensibility connected Dustan with a lineage of French sacred monsters who flirted with an eroticism fused with death: most notably, Bataille’s orgiastic myth-making and Sade’s amoral universe of exquisite punishments. And like so many gay men coming of age in the shadow of the high French theory of the ‘80s — militant sans-culottes flashing ACT UP pins on leather jackets — Dustan was a child of Michel Foucault, that proto-Nietzschean whose twin fascinations, power and sex, found its logical end-point expression in S&M. Indeed, it was Foucault who infamously derided AIDS as an invention of American puritanism when the strange new disease first hit Paris in the early ‘80s — only to become one of France’s first high-profile victims in 1984. (‘To die for the love of boys, what could be more beautiful,’ Foucault once quipped, mirroring Dustan’s own ethos of hedonistic self-sacrifice.)

In a similar vein, Dustan found safe sex propaganda and the blank-faced truisms of the medical establishment as yet more phobic strategies of coercion. Gay men, so long pilloried for their promiscuity and their unruly bodies, were now being forced into another straitjacket by the establishment: queer bodies quarantined and disciplined under the sign of straight concern. Dustan rejected this new gay identity imposed from outside by sanctimonious professionals and politicans back-pedalling on bigoted track records. Rather than submit to a discourse of fatalism and censoriousness, Dustan struggled toward an affirming HIV-positivity: a Bakhtinian carnival under the lingering symbol of Thanatos. Rather than the ‘imperative of health,’ Dustan celebrated the disorderly, the degenerate, the intense, the obscene.

Of course, Dustan’s flamboyantly hostile agenda — combative, cranky, defiantly queer — was problematic on various levels, and not least the obvious ones. Given his casual nihilism and flippant disregard for the niceties of polite debate, it can be difficult to tell how much he’s satirising or glorifying the unbalanced energies of sex under late capitalism. In Dans ma chambre, the characters fetishise bodies — both their own and others’ — until they’re emptied of all other meaning: literally, objects of desire in a hollow commodity exchange. In these terms, gay liberation looks little more than a return to isolation and pathology: relentlessly cruising for a strangely sexless sex; all exhausted appetites and high anxiety. His characters are vampires ever restless for new blood. Locked into a pattern of drilled-in repetition compulsion, strangers to anything but their own reflections, his cast of outlaw renegades look more like lonely phantoms, blind to their own conformity and self-marginalisation.

It’s difficult not to read into these contradictions much of Dustan’s own self-divisions. Born William Baranes into a middle-class Jewish family, he spent most of his adult life working as that most hallowed, bourgeois of professions — an administrative judge. Appearing at war with the outside world, with his tossed-off provocations and devil-may-care insouciance, the battle really seemed to lie within: the pragmatic paragon of the law versus the adolescent anarchist seeking to overturn received morality and rip up ethical codes. Janus-like, his self-constructed persona of Guillaume Dustan left him stranded within his own paradox.

Turning away from the stringent sentences he delivered in court, in his literary life he turned written sentences into Molotov cocktails, setting out to explode bien-pensant thinking and bourgeois self-preservation. For Dustan, the survivalist mentality was just another trap; a banal, pre-ordained world he couldn’t believe in. ‘Never will I grow old,’ a character jeers in Je sors ce soir (1997). And there was something unmistakably teenage about Dustan, hungry to demolish every taboo, railing at a world of injustice and tedium.

It’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to soften into national treasure status. A natural-born contrarian, it seems — however unintentionally — he chose to heed Gore Vidal’s dictum that death is the best career move. After abandoning literary Paris’ incestuous, cut-throat coteries for a wig (courtroom-style) and gavel in provincial France, he died in 2005 of an apparently accidental drug overdose. Aged 39, he beat Rimbaud — that other precocious poète maudit — by just a few years. As the narrator of Dans ma chambre anticipates: ‘Then I will be so disgusted that it will finally be time to kill me’.

Yet now the dust has settled on this rabble-rousing life, what has become of Dustan’s legacy? Given the hyper-speed of our digital age, there has been a renewed interest in the ‘90s years of ACT UP, AIDS activism and a burgeoning politics of queer identity. (Notably, 120 B.P.M: Robin Campillo’s 2017 cinematic hymn to the era.) Indeed, given the creeping, conservative temperature of our own times, the embattled, bigoted ‘80s seems less like modern history than a troubling parallel to our own news cycle.

Yet, it can’t be denied that capitalism’s ever-shrewd machine has a keen eye on manufacturing a new kind of nostalgia to sell this dark past back to us. Now we’re at a safe, sterile distance from AIDS’ indiscriminate scythe — PrEP, Grindr, gay marriage — the ‘aestheticisation’ of AIDS activism has reclaimed many of its symbols as a fashionable signifier from a vanished age, emptied of all its urgent meaning. Keith Haring works turned into cutesy totems; ‘Silence = Death’ T-shirts and pink triangles flaunted as Instagram-friendly radical chic. Of course, much of the genius of ACT UP’s guerrilla tactics was a triumph of style: the ‘blood’ bombs, the die-ins, the flamboyant theatrics of it all; a style born of a desperate, uncompromising will. And yet, all the while, there’s Dustan — the black cloud in the silver lining — refusing to get with the programme, morosely rolling his eyes and wanting none of it.

These same fashions have also left Dustan — irasciblle, unassimilable — behind. Relegated to an academic footnote or bemusing curio, Dustan’s works have gone largely unknown and untranslated outside of his native France. In Tristan Garcia’s Hate: A Romance (2008), a Prix de Flore-winning roman à clef tracing the impact of AIDS in 1980s Paris, Dustan appears as the thinly veiled ‘Willie Doum’, a condom-eschewing hedonist in intellectual warfare with his activist contemporaries. Dustan is also paid suitably perverse homage at the climax of Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie from the same year: a Foucauldian ‘body-essay’ on trans-ness, testosterone and our ‘pharmacopornographic’ age. (‘I promise you that we will come to rub our bodies against your grave, that we will come to leave the traces of our bodily fluids on the slab (…) we will come to quench your thirst for sex, blood, and testosterone.’)

A biography published earlier this year, Raffael Enault’s Dustan Superstar, attempts to ‘save’ Dustan through hagiography: almost unsparing in its avalanche of minutiae, it replaces the myth of his own self-creation with plodding fact. The difficult truth may be that Dustan, with his energetic polemics, his disdain for the conventional, was necessarily at odds with anyone trying to contain or co-opt him. As his epitaph in Montparnasse Cemetery reads: ‘I was always for everything’. And, it seems clear today, absolutely nothing else.

Daniel Culpan is a freelance writer based in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 12th, 2019.