From the Amphitheater of the Dead
The Amphitheater of the Dead is a book by the French militant and philosopher Guy Hocquenghem, a participant in the May ‘68 uprising in Paris and a member of the Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire. Hocquenghem wrote The Amphitheater of the Dead, a semi-fictionalized memoir, in 1988 on his deathbed, though it is set in an imagined 2018. It was translated by Pinko editor Max Fox for Guillotine Press.
A meeting of leftists in one of the classrooms at the École. Busts of historians and archaeologists look out with their empty gazes at the longhairs in jeans who, through chain smoking and all-nighters, have attained the pale tint of someone eaten away by worries, which is the revolutionary ideal. A tanned revolutionary is a contradiction in terms.
We adopt motions, we count the abstentions, over an obscure quarrel between two wings of Trotskyism. Suddenly, Chisseray gets up and starts shouting. Chisseray is the leader of the other wing, the one I am not a part of. We are wreckers, petit-bourgeois. The orator is round and pink, with the face of shopkeeper, which hides the soul of a prosecutor from the Reign of Terror.
“And what’s more, H. is homosexual. Your group admits vicious, petty-bourgeois degenerates..” (Later, I learned of Chisseray’s suicide, at the age of thirty, from revolutionary disillusionment.)
It’s the first time that someone has publicly accused me of this. My heart stops beating for a second, and then I have a strange, icy sensation—as if I had been stripped naked in front of everyone.
I hadn’t thought that it could ever be known. I had constructed, between my private life, my weekends in the countryside, and my first outings to nightclubs, my love for Romain, and the embryo of my public life, a wall that I had thought to be impassible. I saw in the eyes of my comrades an immense discomfort. A leaden silence imposed itself; we could hear, outside the far away rumor of traffic, the beating of the Parisian arteries that, like those of your own heart, were amplified all of a sudden in grave circumstances.
Still, below this public shame, I felt almost comforted, a perverse pleasure to be the object of general attention. I got up without responding, walked like a ghost down the deserted corridors, and got to a cafe, le Mayeux (since turned into a fast-food place), where we would hold our little conversations while devouring eggs and ham—the revolutionary diet, plus beer and coffee. The others came to join me a little later.
My comrades. The expression, still, can make me smile. I had with them a relation like an individual to a tribe, a friendship one only develops among a band of young people, the potent friendship of those who know they share the same values.
Around this little iron table there was Henri, a tall, thin son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who, after organizing with left Zionists, had come to Trotskyism; his wife, Pascale, a sexy blonde Jew with a protruding nose and breasts, and Jean-René, who I was close to—from nights of bonding together, distributing texts at the Renault factory and taking the first subway back to get breakfast in a still-sleeping neighborhood in the Latin Quarter; fights with “fascists,” everything that unites and ties—bearded and blond with innocent blue eyes. He was always smiling, and embodied for me the naive generosity of our world in the face of adult, bourgeois cruelty.
Yes, I loved them, all three, I believed we had to build a new world together; I would live in a collective, later, with Jean-René. That day, we had, by an implicit common agreement, begun by avoiding comment on the incident. But my comrades began a complete demolition of Chisseray and his group.
“They’re punks, henchmen. They think that proletarian style is just insults and punches, like a big vulgar insult is proof of being a worker..”
Suddenly, Jean-René turns to me with his myopic blue gaze, his social myopia that makes him commit the worst gaffes as well as see rainbows, the revolutionary El Dorado behind the quotidian grey, and all of a sudden blurts out: “But is it true, that you’re homosexual?”
He wants simply for me to know that it’s all the same to him. For the second time, I am disarmed, frozen; I didn’t expect it from his part, for their part, my comrades. And I respond in a small voice, while Henri and Pascale dive into their glasses to avoid my gaze or to not let me read theirs, and Jean-René blushes like a bearded little girl, finally understanding how rude it was to ask: “You’re crazy! What a question!”
A response I am still ashamed of a half-century later.
Let us fly on the wing of time. In ‘68, with the approval of the Organization, which feared a mass raid of militants, we adopted pseudonyms and new addresses. Romain and I stayed on the rue de Cherche-Midi, with a short, wide young Canadian who played servant-girl roles in the same plays as Romain. It was like playing hide and seek in real life, this life between the Sorbonne and insurrection, and these incessant disguises. Romain took part in the actors’ committee, and I joined all the barricades.
Who, today, among the French youth, still knows the experience of the barricades? We were perfectly aware of their essentially theatrical function, a castoff of a nineteenth-century revolution with its living works of art (and Romain more than anyone). But we felt, both of us, magnified in our complicity, our desiring flesh just barely out of adolescence, by the Great Game of revolution. Living in hiding is a thrilling experience. It is like disposing of yourself for a while, getting rid of your old self. With Romain, it became erotic. And when I came back in the early morning, the odor of teargas clinging to my skin, he would lick the smell of the riot off me.
When summer came, we were sent out to the Jura countryside with a group of comrades—mainly, Jean-René; Michel, the grandson of a rabbi from Marrakesh who had put his earlocks, childish air, and charming smile in the service of the revolution; his girlfriend at the time; and my brother and little sister, who were part of the little group of which I was the natural leader. (When and how had I become “leader”? By the very particular charm of an anti-authoritarian exhibitionism, I suppose.)
On trees, along the roads, Gaullist posters prepared for the elections. “Never again!” they proclaimed to the passersby, with a red flag and a black flag mixed up.
We were more than a political organization; and we groped our way forward, like babies in the dark, trying to grab onto one another, toward the evanescent idea of an absolute happiness, of a life reconciled with itself. And what we believed ourselves to be grasping for, the phantom of liberty, continually escaped us. We discussed it for hours each night without realizing that this happiness was not “to come” after the Great Overturning; we had it already, between us; it had taken us by surprise without us even recognizing it.
We smoked enormously. Weed, moroccan hashish, black oils in little kohl bottles. It was Romain who introduced me to drugs. (I took a long time to realize that drugs are above all a sign of downward mobility. It took me trips to Morocco to realize that kif is correlated to misery).
Romain knew a girl, Paulette, and her brother, both of them from the solid middle class of the region, both of them frizzy-haired like lambs and cute like unisex angels. Romain had eyes for the brother. One night, I found the two of them, seated on the rug in our attic where you couldn’t even stand up without hitting your head, the sunny light of autumn coming through the fanlight, through which you could see nothing but sky. Adrien—that was the name of the brother—took a black stone gravely out of his pocket and asked me for an empty bottle. He performed a mysterious operation on it, rubbing its neck rapidly with a string to heat it. The top of the bottle fell off cleanly.
“Shilum,” (sic) Adrien said gravely while brandishing the neck. Then he began, his angel’s face creased with focus, to heat up the stone, which he rubbed between his fingers. “Hashish,” said the instructor, just as sober. When they passed it to me, I shrugged my shoulders. I was against drugs, as a revolutionary. I drew it in out of curiosity—and to not fall in their eyes—a burning mouthful of incense that smelled like a Pall Mall.
And this mouthful led me to smoke for twenty years.
The attic was a boat, an oscillating gondola, floating in the air, with its masts of beams, the heavy smoke of the little service filled it entirely with its curls of smoke, through which the setting sun played its muffled golds.
A grey suburban detached house—the very idea of the suburbs, of the suburban-detached-house, realized on earth. An earthen path, squeezed between the adjoining walls and an open-air pile of automobile carcasses, follows along the road. The enameled plaque with a branch of blooming roses reads “Villa-Les-Roses.” The only rose is on the plaque. The windows of the rooms on the second floor—of which the doors have been taken off, as have those of the bathrooms, to combat bourgeois egoism and self-regard—open onto the junkyard.
The stairway is wrapped around with a large fresco, the work of a comrade who needed to express himself (and I’m not mocking him, today it seems to me so respectable and so far-off), where rigid, huge figures are immortalized in front of the unauthorized worksite.
This is the commune of Ivry. To rent the building, I had to borrow a vest and tie and put on glasses. I disguised myself as a bourgeois to no longer be one; you can’t found the new utopia without one final ruse.
Below, where the living room once was, sits a long skinny sofa garnished with Afghan pillows. And an afghan itself, brought by Marc, the other comrade who rounds out the group.
Marc is a redhead, smiling, patient. Of all my comrades, it’s him I confide in the most willingly. All of this work of community is above all for a desire to confide.
At night, under bare bulbs, in the decor that is so dreary you could cry—grey walls, ripped-off doors—we come together mostly to dream. Mostly from the big black block of hashish which Marc distributes generously.
O Marc! How could I have lost track of you? Are you an old ginger, still wise and crazy, or have you become respectable?
In the circle seated cross-legged, there is Michel and his girlfriend, a woman who worked in advertising but was ripped from her white varnished apartment in the 16th Arrondissement, an auxiliary revolutionary out of love.
Other than Jean-René, my brother and a few others, there are two guys, dead drunk every night, young Renault factory workers. Their proletarian position obviously gives them a moral superiority (even more since Antoine quit the factory after moving here, and the other started practicing absenteeism). They drink together, instead, straight from the bottle and try in vain to offer some to their comrades.
The comrades smoke, the workers drink. Which doesn’t keep them from smoking; it has less of an effect on them than on us, petit-bourgeois with long hair, painfully “peace and love” in our comportment. For them, it’s nothing but a self-serious yoga practice.
“And I say we have to take off the door to the toilet. It’s the last private space here..” Antoine argues with pathos, shaking his fist. Only Françoise, the girlfriend of Michel, is impressed. Pretty woman, a fleshy blond with throaty laughs that leave her on her back, offered up, symbolizing the incestuous mother they all no doubt dreamed of having.
Me, I was in love with Michel. His lively Sephardic face, his acid-colored velour jeans, his convictions, so profoundly rooted in him—that we had already lost, but that we nevertheless had to act, in this time of reaction toward order and money that surrounded our little lost house, the only light among the dented steel.
Maybe Michel was right. Now that I draw up my accounts, this warning from my own youth rings terribly right. I was not beaten socially; the strong winds of recognition touched me with their horn of plenty. But against the daily fear of sensing the chill of death, this reflection of a half-century before fits me still today.
We changed location when Ivry became so ravaged it was uninhabitable. “Our workers” left us to continue their adventures with the unemployed.
(Never forget, beneath each of these phrases I write, the sole idea is: I will soon die.)
We changed location and our way of life. At Asnières, in a big English-style house, with radiators to heat us, the petit-bourgeoisie had retaken the ground. Already, these stories of community, of politicized chores, are leaving me. ⊱