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Éden/Paradis After the Avant-Garde

By Jean Bessière & David Vichnar.


Louis Armand’s The Garden (Director’s Cut) (11:11 Press, 2020): Eden/Paradis After the Avant-Garde

“But as André Breton once said: The great enemy of man is opacity.”
Louis Armand, The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avant-Garde

When Pierre Guyotat’s “legendary novel of atrocity” (Stephen Barber) on the war in Algeria, Éden Éden Éden appeared in 1970 to public uproar & immediate ban as “pornography” by the French Interior Ministry, it bore a short “Foreword” by Roland Barthes. As if to placate the catastrophic fallout of Guyotat’s obscene & brutal text, Barthes introduced it as “a free text: free of all subjects, of all objects, of all symbols, written in the space (the abyss or blind-spot) where the traditional constituents of discourse […] would be superfluous” (1). In an elegant critical cop-out that only someone like himself could pull off, Barthes insisted that the natural consequence of such “freedom” is that it leaves criticism with nothing left to do, “unable to discuss the author, his subject, or his style” (2). In the mid-90s, twenty-five years after Guyotat’s “war on literature” waged in Algeria, Louis Armand travelled through Morocco & “the disputed Western Sahara”, a trip which gave rise to notebooks that furnished the basis for The Garden (Salt, 2001). Another twenty-five years later, Armand produced The Garden: Director’s Cut, a complete, unexpurgated edition of his own Maghrebi “ransacking of literary & theological pieties” (3). And so, when writing his short “Preface” to Armand’s text 50 years after Barthes’ on Guyotat, Jean Bessière again evoked “the paradox of complete freedom” in whose spirit the text should be read: “non-alienation can be expressed only by transgression & deconstruction & their opposite, the obsession with claustration & destruction.” The trick of The Garden is not to make “these references coalesce,” but to “describe a constant state of Non-Being,” one which requires “not a poetics of negativity but of fragmentation & continuity” (or, cinematic “cutting”) (4).

Armand’s is “a chimerical tale of disorientation & lust” (Pam Brown) that follows two figures & a voice: a woman M, who is dead (and quite possibly “M for murdered”), a man, & one endlessly rambling voice that keeps fragmenting & reuniting their “stories”. The Garden lends itself to a number of different readings: as an exercise in avant-garde writing & promotion of the signifier (the only undebatable object of reading after “Paradise” has ceased to be clearly recognized), as a pornographic & phantasmal picture of Eden, as a defense of pure writing (a kind of reprise of Sollers’ Paradis, which consists of a 250-page flow of words), as a pure practice of the illegible (by way of a return to the signifier), as an appeal to paying attention to a wide intertextuality & an extensive inter-artistic network, & as an exercise in transparent writing & literary opacity. These readings rely on some of the Western neo-avant-garde writing procedures of which The Garden avails itself.

However, it seems more productive for the critical reflection to focus upon what remains of the idea of Paradise after these writing procedures (and themes) of Western neo-avant-garde have been exploited. Let us confess that Paradise becomes an evanescent idea or possibility, because our neo-avant-garde can identify it only as the imaginary of authority & of a fancy totality. To deem an idea evanescent is not sufficient to write a complete book. We say complete although The Garden does not show a formal beginning or a formal end. We can say complete because it reaches its goal: to change dominant evocations of Paradise into many signifiers which make it possible to conceive a non-alienated community, the one of human non-beings, that is, ourselves. This is the most remarkable rereading of this abstraction & non-reality which Paradise is. It supposes to pay attention to & to use “opacity”, which we name the illegible, that is, opacity applied to writing.

1. The illegible & the legible in The Garden: Beyond writing & the rustle of language

The manifest & often highlighted illegibility of The Garden (5) might be characterized as the best path to the perception of the rustle of language & to the pleasure of the text. The illegible is attached to the discontinuities, semantic shifts & montages of The Garden’s one single & unpunctuated 150-page sentence, to the disparate evocations of Morocco, to the deterritorialization of several unnamed places, & to the many unstable agents & characters. The reading of The Garden is likely to become volatile because the illegible, the rustle of language & the text’s montages trigger paradoxical representations & open “an abyss between appearance & illusion” (TG, 105).

The Garden & its world should consequently appear at once isolated (it forms a realm of its own, & possibly an expandable one) the single sentence has no formal beginning & end. As The Garden asserts, “Theory isolates Art by putting it into a realm of its own” (TG, 110). Literature & art prove that they have not limit & are autonomous. Regarding art & autonomy, The Garden has this to say:

but words weren’t made to last forever when you look in a mirror you don’t see who’s been there before you as if to keep something by denying it by denying the loss of it like Hermione of her Longings & Lear of his Madness & if the sudden apparitions come to life it’s only in order to pass away it won’t’ve been the last time art was born of coercion or innuendo sketched rather than achieved like lightning in a serene sky (TG, 43);

je est une ordure you have to live stories He said before inventing them but wasn’t life itself the history of an illusion as archaic as any longsuffering inebriated ego with a hard-on for dialectical materialism you want to be god & fuck Him at the same time as being fucked by Him the All-Knowing the All-Merciful first you name your enemies so as to erase them establishing certain formal procedures of arbitrary arrest. (TG, 55)

The pleasure of the text might be contradicted by the irritation which the deciphering of figures of subjection & subordination, & of the totemic “presence” of Allah, are likely to provoke. But this alliance of pleasure & psychic irritation is a construct of the text, a written contradiction & consequently includes any traumatic scene & disturbing reading in the safe experience of art (“… only Art makes everything safe” [TG, 64]). The illegible & its anti-absorptive quality meets the reader’s interest in impermeability & confirms that a literary work is itself, nothing less. This should first be defined by its form, that is, the sequence of its words, by the union of its material production (the object that is the book & which includes writing), & of the spirit of the letter (the letter commands a literal reading). Symbol-tracking & exercises in interpretation are not priorities.

There are, however, limits to The Garden’s identification with a realm of its own & with the pleasure of the text. The illegible is a paradoxical impasse: it supposes the “calculus” that produces it & consequently cannot be disassociated from the legible, which remains its background. It always triggers interrogations & compels the reader to choose their position & to open up pathways to inference. However, the work being the work it is, it cannot be disseminated in too many inferential expansions. Inevitably, the volatility of reading is reduced & framed by the work’s literality, that is, the legible. The association of the illegible & the legible identifies the semantic form of the work. The certitude of the legible relies on the use of our daily words, whatever limits to their relevance & propriety they show. Remarkably, the first two lines of The Garden—“eyes lips dreams first nothing then light in the beginning before time in the intractable unlight in the dawn of the world” (TG, 1)—suggest at once the relevance & irrelevance of our daily words. They cannot make the move from unlight to light intelligible, while remaining the only clear objects of reading: “unlight” obliges the reader to return to “light”.

The association of the legible & the illegible has its counterpart in the spectacles of our world & our perceptions of them. The “abyss between appearance & illusion” invites us to recognize the dissociation between a kind of legibility (appearance) & a kind of illegibility & its consequence (illusion). This abyss proves the difficulty discriminating & interrelating appearance & illusion, & accounting for the relevance of any system of signs (6). The association of the illegible & the legible responds to this difficulty. The illegible makes any of its presentations a blank & disorients. Any reading is changed into a close reading & a constant interrogation: the illegible is not absorbed by the legible & the latter is not dissolved into the first. Consequently, The Garden cannot be viewed as a “realm for itself”, even though the focus is on itself.

The paradox of the illegible & the legible applies to The Garden’s central themes. As its title, its paratexts & a few of its textual segments suggest, The Garden is a book viewing our world as mirroring Paradise—or Derek Jarman’s home garden in Dungeness—& which responds to “l’abandon de l’homme au sein de la totalité du monde” (TG, 110). Whatever importance is recognized to these paratexts & textual segments, The Garden is not the book of the happy “Garden”; it highlights the relations between the totemic figure of Allah & the figures of subjection or subordination, & associates writing with many references to obscene bodies. However, the reference to the “Garden” is not erased but paradoxically linked with these figures & the phantasmal presence of Allah. The reality & the image of the “Garden” at once persist & are overturned, as The Garden’ s “realm of its own” & rustle of language become reversed: they make any utopia of language & specifically the work which is a realm of its own & the rustle of language seem irrelevant. “BEWARE THE ALLURES OF UTOPIA” (TG, 60), The Garden proclaims.
Why does Louis Armand construct this double reversal? He does not intend to negate the propriety of the literary work, nor does he recommend to approve of subjection & subordination. He intends to erase the idea of a perfect & idyllic heterotopia (the “Garden” of Paradise), which should be deemed as useless as all other heterotopias. He employs this idea as a means to present differences that generate differences & which are designated by a series of words without necessary links. The closing lines of The Garden offer an example of this kind of series: “the blurred stereoscopy of Raphaelite hair slipping its moorings to sink down among all the poetic detritus & dead dreamings & night without day as the waves dissolve & she couldn’t think to think going under like this to a point of no return without circumference or dimension or duration even” (TG, 143).

The illegible & the legible mirror the writing of differences which constructs a constant literary parataxis & imposes paratactic readings. This parataxis is the literary version of the definition & activity of semiotic systems – generalized systems of equivalences, at once tropological & topical. It suggests what might be the representation of the world which responds to the realm of “l’abandon de l’homme”: this world should be without dualities, stratifications & hierarchies – the “Garden” & the rest, the opposition of man & the world, etc. The closing lines of The Garden exemplify this specific power of representation of the illegible & the legible: to designate a world that cannot be described, showing no spatial or temporal dimensions, since it should be without hierarchies & binary oppositions.

2. From the para- to the text: The Garden & the world of non-being

Two characteristics of The Garden are obvious.

First characteristic: the reading of any symbolic background is barred. The publisher associates the work with an introduction which mentions a trip of the author to Morocco, the Book of Genesis, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Shaykh Nefzawi’s Perfumed Garden, & Derek Jarman’ s films. The Garden’s text does not make these mentions manifest & continuous; they can be identified in vague evocations. Consequently, any explicit identification of a symbolic background in The Garden, & any totalizing approach to the work & a wholistic recognition of its intertextual world remain impossible.

Second characteristic: the subtitle (Director’s Cut) should not be overlooked. It has a double meaning. On the one hand, this expression belongs to the lexicon of film industry, & designates the final version of a film as conceived & edited by the director. Applied to The Garden by its author, the subtitle suggests that the text we read is literally a final version by Armand’s hand & that other versions might have been conceived. It also suggests that the work might be the final “literary” version of Jarman’s eponymous arthouse film. But this literary version does not rely on Jarman’ s image of Paradise.

Free from any explicit antecedent & consequently of any substantial & operative symbolic background, The Garden can be described as exempt from any kind of paradigm. The many erratic & crude actions reported, the negative portrayals of Allah & all other divinities, the graphic representations of savagery & violence, all these do not explicitly imply rules to be ignored, but some kind of nil, nothingness, & beings identifiable as non-beings. To a non-being, anything is permitted. Anyone unlimited by a rule—whatever it is—is the proof of non-being. The best presentation of non-beings relies on the disorientation of the agents, their transformative & uncertain identities & their perplexity, all the more remarkable whenever these dispositions are linked to God: “He [Allah] created her to but suffer for Him but how could she be sure who was anymore doubt having a tendency to always flower in the mind on opportune occasions” (TG, 28).

Allah is a non-being, whose every word, every action, every intention are nothing in this world: “promise me she’d said […] He could promise nothing…” (TG, 29). The state of non-being & its existential, behavioral & literary presentations are inseparable from “l’abandon de l’homme au sein de la totalité du monde”. Even things can be the evidence of nothingness: they are “nullified” – “a nullified Thing” (TG, 12). The writer might also be a non-being, the person whose highest talent is to offer the spectacles of non-being.

Non-being allows also a reverse move: it restores the symbols of the human community & the effacement of dualities & hierarchies. Since most of The Garden’s bodies are pleasurable &/or painful, the text reduces individuals to their sensations – the most certain & concrete definition of any personal identity. This reduction makes self-conscience & self-reflexivity into repetitive experiences & assertions of the state of non-being, & links all individuals to a ghostly condition or a mechanical state:

I’ve lost her already buried under the infinite weight of her significations a scene in a dimly lit room against the far wall a bed & beside that a washbasin a narrow bathtub a woman’s frantically miserable ghost standing before a mirror no windows are visible only a postcard tacked to the wall (TG, 134-5)

The human subject is consequently defined as a sort of “minimum” (TG, 6), which does not bar representations & writing but make them illegible & similar to a poem.

In the world of non-being, any individual is radically singular & similar to any other, consequently without any clear identification of their limits. The individual reader’s immersion into non-being invites them to view the text’s innumerable non-beings as paratactic ensembles. The human non-being paradoxically forms a whole world, which is made manifest by the physical & carnal presentations of its subject (God included). These presentations are all-inclusive as the spectacles of sexuality, bodies, & pain they offer exemplify the “minimum” which makes the all-encompassing evocation of human beings possible. The Garden’s references to Christianity & Islam do not address issues in religion but highlight precisely this dubious evocation of humanity. In Christianity, the most human being—Christ—invites us to share his emptiness (TG, 10) & teaches us that Christianity stands open to all turpitudes (7):

the apple of His mammy’s eye I want to share this emptiness with you He says facelessly staring down from the dead screen where the film’s meant to reflect the Promised Land the Perfumed Garden this Wilderness of Failure preferring nothing but a journey without direction & no conclusion (TG, 10-1)

The portrait of Allah carries the same lesson. The world of the human non-beings is the world of a community. It questions & destabilizes the order & stratifications of the “Garden” & our daily world, & their power to totalize meaning. Remarkably, the first & the last pages of The Garden, which suggest a holistic view of the world, are free of any totalization. They describe kinds of perceptions & abstractions displaying this world as free of spatial & temporal frames & rich with the flow of sensations.

These characteristics of The Garden make it the interpretant of representations of Paradise & of the specific one implied in Jarman’ s The Garden. In this film, Paradise is a realm of its own, which is not always the domain of justice & which consequently disfigures God’s supposed bounty & love. Jarman’s representation of Paradise finally makes it possible to defend individual behavior against social, moral & religious norms, which are of no avail. They preserve a blind order & should be refused because they trigger discriminations, distorting & dislocating the wider human community. Armand’s reversal of the image of Paradise invites us to overcome the idea of Paradise as a useless utopia. This reversal implies not so much an anti-moral choice as the refusal of any kind of power & the absolute. Human non-beings & their “minimum” which makes their identities safe are the perfect allegories of this refusal. The long unpunctuated sentence is the jubilant expression of this refusal & makes the impossibility to recognize a symbolic background to The Garden’s textual world its manifest justification.

3. The Garden’s “political pornography” as blasphemy of the sacred literal

The Garden reacts to Guyotat in more than just its title or form. After all, The Garden might refer to Eden Eden Eden’s textual emissions, but adapts its almost classicist pornographic approach from Bosch’s Earthly Delights, its clinical camera-eye is that of Jarman’s cinematic voyeurism, & its multiple references to “smells” & “waftings” are a tip of the hat to Nefzawi’s The Perfumed Garden. Nor can their relation be reduced to just the shared form of a single 150-page sentence. Here Armand goes even a step further than Guyotat, removing all punctuation & letting the ampersand function as the only segmenting device.

But what is most interesting about the relation between Armand’s & Guyotat’s books lies beyond both their titles & their forms. Importantly, like Guyotat but quite in its own way, The Garden also does away with such “traditional constituents of discourse” as (quoth Barthes) “the one who speaks, the events recounted, the way they are expressed” (8). Before forming itself as a subjectivity, M appears “physically” on the page, as a letter-character just born: “a dislocated ampersand or a bruised M tipped on its side or a semi-legible Phrygian Phoenician Greek Σ or a K for kafir monogrammed on a piece of bloody sackcloth” (TG, 2), but soon the letter comes to signify an entire universe:

M for mute for ma mère for morte for migraine morphine misery for money machine mantra myxoma malaria for mongrel melanoma macabre morbid mandragora for mastectomy for meanness martyr mastoid for moaning bitchbody for missed messiah for manhole for Mam’selle X mindwash & milk of human miserliness for momentary marred mutilated for all the malediction & menace & melodrama (TG, 4)

Some of this is universal, but some of this is markedly part of a woMan’s universe: not just the mastectomy & milk of miserliness, but more importantly the migraine misery, the martyrdom, & the mutilated malediction.

The Garden is, by its own admission, “by turns excoriating & lyrical, political & pornographic,” but most of its “blasphemous ransacking” is directed at the institutionalised, ideological & discursive, as well as starkly physical misogyny perpetr/uated by the legions of huMANity’s religions. M for “misogyny,” then: “because a woman must have a hole of her own if she’s not to be a work of pure fiction” (TG, 53). The primal story of the Garden of Genesis, after all, is a whodunnit with the culprit all too clear. And so Armand’s M in The Garden keeps escaping & coming back to the “Eternal Punishment she’d been secretly longing for from the moment she exited the womb” (TG, 31), the punishment of all the ill-chosen-ones of “being thus honoured above all women to be the receptacle of His rapture” (TG, 20), “the women of Allah their screams” (TG, 84).

“Blasphemous” is the mode in which The Garden is at its best, as it allows Armand to combine his “political pornography” with his critique of religious misogyny in some savagely hilarious metaphors, as when “a single prophylactic” is described as “tantamount to the whole nation’s reproductive industry going out on strike” (TG, 17), or when M catches herself

thinking of all the women of mythology abducted by aliens in the throes of some erotic disorder one minute they’re having their brains fucked out by a hirsute Lesbian the next they’re in a plexiglass cocoon in Allah’s private space laboratory (TG, 41)

And Allah of course is not the only one who comes in for blame. Armand’s materiality of the word also extends into a Joycean blasphemy of the literalism of some of the Scriptures’ canonical magic tricks:

what a travesty Jesus-Lazarus must’ve been with his wormy flyblown stigmata they never paint Him like that planted atop Golgotha that time of year all the blood & unloosed bowels of the crucified wafting on the airwaves to any among the faithful of Judea with a nose to smell by (TG, 48)

The Garden’s “illegible” is a means to denounce & censor the absolute language of religions & Paradise, & finally to offer the discourse of non-alienation.

4. From blindness to insight & freedom

On the one hand, the illegible constrains any literal reading, as no uninterrupted sentences can be identified, with no recognizable obvious & continuous links between the series of words. Readers just face a “wall” of expressions & scenes, which the title invites to interpret as qualifications of “the garden”. On the other hand, the non-cohesiveness of these expressions & the invisibility of many of these scenes (both Allah & The Garden’s continuous sexual spectacles & deformations of the bodies remain invisible) lead to a paratactic reading & to the experience of the paradoxical visibility of phantasms, offering views that cannot be seen. Reading is likely to remain irrational & to impose a paradoxical blindness: what it is supposed to be viewed cannot be verified.

But The Garden’s illegible should also be read as a means to qualify our world & its beings, to identify their “absolute minimum”, which contradicts any other absolute & remains “incomprehensible”, that is, foreign to the authority of any interpretation. The illegible leads to a legible which remains opaque. It makes The Garden into a denial of “the garden” & Paradise: it thwarts any recognition of any authority in their evocations; its paradoxical visibility collapses the categories of sex & transcendence.

The Garden’s long unpunctuated writing commands two readings at once, the literal & the paragrammatic one. The unavoidable literal reading relies on incomplete grammatical or semantic structures. Because this incompleteness is systematic, it shows reiterations of words, partial evocations of characters, actions & scenes. In all cases, bodies, non-human beings, their actions, & their world are designated by repeated words belonging to the vocabularies of anatomy, of time & space & other domains. Because these words are constant, they construe a series of semantic forms that remain not coded, & neither totalize nor hierarchize meanings. The legible & the incomprehensible are paradoxically allied: they expose the non-being of meaning, the only free meaning.

Back to Barthes, then: although left by his own admission with “no way of taking hold” of Guyotat’s text, he nevertheless did call it “a historical shock” which gathers up “the whole of an earlier evolution of writing”, the underbelly of the French tradition “from Sade to Genet, from Mallarmé to Artaud”, only one which is devoid of “Story” or “Sin” & leaves us “simply with language & lust” (9). Analogously, Armand’s The Garden is an important book in that it leaves us with both of these couplings, while allowing for the experience, not of “a historical shock,” but of a shock of history. It dissects the so-called huMANity’s history of sin (a.k.a. the history of its woMen) in a lustful language that literally “stops at nothing.”

(1) Roland Barthes, “Preface”, Pierre Gyotat, Eden Eden Eden, trans. Graham Fox (Creation Books, 2003) vii.

(2) Barthes, “Preface” to Eden Eden Eden, vii.

(3) Publisher blurb. Louis Armand, The Garden (Director’s Cut) (Minneapolis: 11/11 Press, 2020), unpaginated.

(4) Jean Bessière, “Preface,” Louis Armand, The Garden (Director’s Cut) (Minneapolis: 11/11 Press, 2020), unpaginated. Further in-text references—marked as TG—are to this edition.

(5) See e.g. Jordan A. Rothacker, “Lost in The Garden (Director’s Cut) by Louis Armand, a Review”, Heavy Feather Review (Sept. 2020).

(6) Cf. Louis Armand, “Language & the Cybernetic Mind”, Theory, Culture & Society, 2008, vol. 25 (2): 127-152.

(7) Cf. Pierre Guyotat, Humains par hasard : entretiens avec Donatien Grau (Paris: Gallimard, 2016) 25. 

(8) Barthes, “Preface” to Eden Eden Eden, vii.

(9) Barthes, “Preface” to Eden Eden Eden, vii.


jean bessière

Jean Bessière is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne and Professor honorado of the Universidad Tres de Febrero-Buenos Aires. He directed the Association internationale de Littérature comparée from 1997 to 2000. He is author of some fifteen books including Le Roman ou la problématicité du monde (2010), Questionner le roman (2012), Inactualité et originalité de la littérature française contemporaine (2014). He edited Contextualizing World Literature (2015) with Gerald Gillespie, Lukacs and the Novel, a special issue of Revue Internationale de Philosophie (2019), and Literature and Mysticism (2020) with Dorothy Figueira.

David Vichnar teaches at Charles University Prague. He is also active as an editor, publisher and translator. His translations both from/into English include Philippe Sollers’ H (from French) and Melchior Vischer’s Second Through Brain (from German), as well as Louis Armand’s Snídaně o půlnoci (from English into Czech). He has been active as programme director of the annual Prague Microfestival and manages Litteraria Pragensia Books (since 2006) and Equus Press (since 2011). His monographs include Joyce Against Theory (2010) and The Avant-Postman (2021). His articles on contemporary experimental fiction and poetry — Czech, German, French and Anglophone — have appeared in numerous journals and magazines.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 14th, 2021.