EDITOR’S NOTE BY EMMA RAMADAN
We are all told and expected to live in the world in a certain way. The rules meant to govern our existences are determined in part by the gender listed on our birth certificates. But what if the ways we are told and expected to live in the world don’t correspond with our realities? What if we’re tired of being made to feel humiliated, scared, angry, frustrated, sad when we behave in a way that society has prescribed for our respective genders? What if we need to carve out our own spaces in which we can act and exist in the way that feels the most right, the most true, for us? How and where can we find or create these spaces?
Anne F. Garréta’s Sphinx is one response to these questions, is one of these spaces. Sphinx is part of a line of French texts, including works by Monique Wittig and Roland Barthes, that aim to undo the implications and supposed importance of the gender binary, the false constructions imposed on us by the societies we live in.
To that end, Sphinx presents us with a genderless relationship between the narrator, a theology student by day and a DJ by night, and A***, a dancer from America. Garréta’s first novel, published in 1986 when she was 23 years old and excerpted here, takes us through the layers of this relationship, as the narrator relentlessly courts A*** through a game of hypotheticals, as A*** finally gives in during drunkenness and a dance, as their relationship strengthens in the eyes of the narrator, only to deflate under A***’s chillingly accurate analysis.
Garréta exposes the despair lurking beneath desire, and the constraint we face in our amorous relationships. We listen to the narrator’s sermon on 1980s Paris nightlife and the different kinds of people found in those clubs — the rich who feel they own the place, and those of “lower distinction” desperate to prove they belong. Both ends of this spectrum believe they are owed certain things, because they have fulfilled their side of the unspoken social contract. The narrator’s response is to ignore these social codes, these “pathetic ruses,” and thus to incite confusion, to revel in their doubt and look on laughing as they attempt to burrow their way out of it. When society is at its most uncomfortable, its most vulnerable and unsure, when its rules and regulations are suddenly inapplicable, that is when Garréta triumphs.
Read Sphinx not looking for answers, but to be inundated with all the right questions. Read Sphinx because you’ve never read anything like it, because nothing like it has ever existed in English until now. Twenty-nine years after the French original was published, here it is, as pertinent as ever.
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by Anne F. Garréta, recommended by Deep Vellum Publishing
Translated by Emma Ramadan
I never alluded to what I had so indistinctly perceived in my sleep, and neither did A***. There were always inexplicable silences between us, a sort of prudishness or reserve that kept us from broaching certain intimate subjects. We kept the evidence hidden away, even avoiding the use of expressions that seemed improper, excessive, or bizarre. A*** would never show any immoderate affection, and I was constantly forcing myself not to criticize the escapades I witnessed. Once, only once, I was weak enough to reveal my jealousy, which had been gnawing away at me. In the same vein, A*** only once slipped in showing tenderness toward me, using words and gestures that we had never before allowed ourselves to use.
This single jealous episode took place in the dressing room of the Eden where, one night, I came upon A*** in the company of a man I had seen fairly often in the wings the previous week, whom I suspected to be A***’s latest lover. Normally I pretended not to give a damn about the goings-on of A***’s libido; the number and nature of A***’s escapades were none of my business. What right did I have to be jealous, since there was nothing between us other than platonic affection? But that night I could not bear to see this lugubrious cretin, in the seat that I habitually occupied, engaged with A*** in the sort of conversation I had thought was reserved for me alone. This substitution outraged me: the idea that in my absence someone could take my place, could be the object of identical attentions. I was willing to admit that I was not everything for A***, but I refused to accept that what I was, achieved through a hard-fought struggle, could be taken over by someone else, and apparently by anyone at all. The sole merit of the lover in question was his idiocy: his inane conversation was doubtless a nice break from the thornier discussions A*** and I typically had. A*** thought he had a beautiful face, entrancing eyes, and good fashion sense. I was shocked by A***’s poor taste, by the appreciation of such an individual: an Adonis from a centerfold with a stupidly handsome face.
I had judged him, a priori, as moronic, and I realized, triumph and despair mixing indissolubly, that it was true, indeed in every way. I was revolted by this pretty boy’s attitude, by his dumbfounded acceptance and regurgitation of all conventional hogwash. With the aplomb bestowed on him by age and rank, Monsieur would uphold unconscionable vulgarities, which, moreover, he revered — a proselyte! When I arrived, the conversation was revolving around the countries of North Africa, which he had glimpsed during a recent trip to a resort. He passed briskly from the picturesque story of his trip to general commentary on the countries and the samples of the population that one could encounter in France, “in our country,” as he articulated so well. I reveled in ridiculing a rival in front of A*** and put on a show of systematic perversity. The discussion quickly turned sour: when one realizes that one is being unreasonable, it is precisely then that one employs even more uncouth and violent arguments. The offspring of the 16th arrondissement do not like to be refuted, much less mocked; they never think it beneath them to resort to insults, no matter how low. I left, slamming the door behind me, not without having hurled out an extremely spiteful compliment on the quality and distinction of A***’s lover, whom I referred to with a far more offensive noun.
I was in a very bad mood when I arrived at the Apocryphe, and the music I selected was proof. I exuded my resentment through the loudspeakers, which calmed me down a bit. On the floor that night were some showbiz caryatids, those people that one sees on the covers of popular magazines. They did me the honor of a hello, expecting that I would carry out some of their desiderata: “Could you maybe play X’s latest record…? He’s here tonight, it would be an immmmense pleasure for him,” or else: “When are you going to play some reggae?” It made me snicker that these dignitaries, flush with their new, modern-day power, solicited favors from the feeble authority conferred on me by my position behind the turntables. What an enormous privilege it was in their eyes that they should notice me! In granting me the favor of acknowledging my presence, of pouring onto me a minuscule portion of the celebrity they oozed and tried to pawn off as glory, they tried cheaply to coax my kindness. I made them feel the vanity of their approach, and unless they were willing to own up to the humiliation of failure, they had no choice but to laugh at my sneering. And that night in particular they were made to feel the grace of my cynicism, the bursts of my impertinent irony.
Common mortals have other ways of expressing their desires. A club does not get filled every night with only the chic clientele. Because there are a paltry number of remarkable characters — and they are remarkable only because their number is paltry — a mass of individuals of lower distinction are allowed into this sanctuary, a privilege through which they are made to feel honored. They would come to the Apocryphe, attracted by the club’s reputation (they don’t accept just anybody — you, me, any old person), hoping to rub shoulders with some celebrities.
That night I realized something: they pronounce their desiderata, demanding (without really caring) some record, in order to prove that they have a right to be in this milieu where the arbitrary reigns. It’s their sole ontological proof, their sole cogito, their foundation and justification. I want, therefore I am; I need, I breathe. I spend money, they must grant my desire, considering my demands in light of the value that I offer. I pay to exist; the tribute, delivered in kind or in cash, buys the recognition of my right.
My strategy was to inspire incertitude; I derived pleasure in imbuing these souls with doubt by not playing into their pathetic ruses. Che vuoi? I was leading them to the brink of an essential anxiety. My reply was always “maybe.” It was a dangerous game that exposed me to the disapproval, disrespect, or insidious resentment of the people to whom I denied the assurance of being a subject. Each night I would have to confront this great panic of individual desires that were in reality desires for individuation, for furious revindication. Sometimes I would try — utterly in vain but with a perverse pleasure — to make them understand that the sum of individual desires does not add up to the happiness of all. That when it comes to the music in a club the law of the majority is ineffectual; that neither democracy nor aristocracy, nor even oligarchy, is a possible regime for a coherent musical set. I would argue that a good DJ is one who, rather than simply responding to repetitive wishes that are consciously formulaic and elementary (such and such a record, such and such a song), subconsciously manages to fulfill an unknown desire by creating a unity out of something superior to adding up so many records, so many requests. To appease is not the same as to fulfill.
Each night I made such observations that I would occasionally articulate to myself when pedantic disquisition and contempt started to mutually reinforce each other. I had come to the end of this chapter of my De natura rerum noctis dedicated to the essence of the position of the DJ when I noticed A*** standing near the bar, no longer accompanied by that new moronic lover, being served a glass of champagne by the barman.
It was late, the Eden had already been closed for some time, and I worried that A***’s arrival at the Apocryphe after our altercation meant trouble. I didn’t know if I was supposed to leave my booth and go meet A*** or if I was supposed to wait for A*** to approach me. Fortunately, we both had the same reflex, and met halfway between the bar and the booth. There was no visible trace of what had happened a few hours before. A*** was drunk, which almost never happened, and from within that drunkenness asked me to dance. People didn’t dance as a couple anymore in those days except during retro sequences when the DJ would revive old dance forms such as the bop, tango, or waltz. And that was absolutely what A*** desired: a waltz, nothing less. I was enticed by this extravagance, and besides, why not? At this late hour, only a small number of people remained on the floor. A waltz would serve as a charming exit, and, irresistibly outmoded, could assume the parodic allure that excuses all improprieties. So from the bottom of the crate I took out an LP of Viennese waltzes that I cued with no transition, following some nondescript funk track. Abandoning the turntables, and without any snarky retort this time, I went to dance this waltz.
A***, though drunk, was dancing divinely. A classic routine demonstrates one’s sensibility just as much as the unruly improvisations of today’s dance steps. While dancing these waltzes — for we danced many in succession — I had the impression that never until this day had I reveled in such a carefree lightness of being. There was no longer anybody but us on the dance floor; no doubt our perfect execution of the steps had intimidated all the amateurs. A*** had a naïve and clichéd fondness for the antiquated world of the aristocracy, an admiration for the bygone, the retro, the image of luxury that Hollywood associates with times past.
A***’s drunkenness, at once dissipated and concentrated by the dance, kept us moving. When the Apocryphe closed, we hurried to the Kormoran. Ruggero had a bottle of whiskey brought to my table that he insisted on offering me for the New Year, and as a thank you for the cigars I had brought him back from Germany. And so I too started to drink. A*** and I talked for a long time about everything under the sun. We were drunk, A*** more so than me. There was a warmth, a hint of complicity between us, which soothed the constant tension of our unfinished business. And this happy understanding, permitted by our drunkenness, was further reinforced by the illusory intensity of perception brought on by the alcohol. Leaning toward me and speaking with more abandon than usual, A*** suddenly murmured the following question: “And if we make love, will you still love me after?” Abruptly, I caught a glimpse of what I had given up hoping for, without ever having written it off. It was finally being offered to me, in a whisper and under the extraordinary guise of a fiction, all that we had envisioned and elaborated, that which ultimately gave meaning to all of our stratagems. A*** repeated the query, making it sound like a supplication. I leaned toward A***, not knowing how to respond to the anxiety I sensed in the question.
My only answer was to wrest A*** from the chair and to take us out of this place. Once outside and without having discussed it at all, we hailed a taxi and A*** told the driver the address. Without saying a word, we took the elevator. The fear that I had forgotten suddenly returned and took me by the heart, the fear of flesh that accompanies those first adolescent excitements, an anxiety we attempt to combat too quickly with cynicism. I thought I was going to faint, standing there at last on the threshold of what I had so passionately desired.
I staggered as A*** moved to kiss me; I didn’t know what to do except let it happen. The temporal order of events, even the simple spatial points of reference, all disappeared without my realizing it; everything is blurred in my memory. I have in my mouth, still, the taste of skin, of the sweat on that skin; against my hands, the tactile impression of skin and the shape of that flesh. In a sprawling obscurity — either I closed my eyes or my gaze was struck with a temporary blindness — some vaguely outlined visions, and, in my ear, the echo of soft rustlings, of words barely articulated.
I don’t know how to recount precisely what happened, or how to describe or even attest to what I did, what was done to me. And the effect of the alcohol has nothing to do with this eradication; it’s impossible to recapture the feeling of abandon through words. Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.
When I awoke from the incredible sleep that follows the appeasement of the flesh, I saw A***, watching me and smoking a cigarette. The memories I have of my life at that time are all of this order. Dissolved are the restless nights, the clammy visions of crowds of bodies mangled and shredded by the spurts of light that cut through shadow. Crystallized at the bottom of my memory remains the recollection of these sleeps and these wakings where one floats between the resurgence of desire and the memory of its satisfaction. Never until then had I longed to see A*** dance on stage. When A*** danced in the Apocryphe, I didn’t have to share the pleasure I took in watching: I was allowed to imagine that the dance was dedicated entirely to me, without the crowd being there to prove me wrong. Watching this body moving uninhibited, this body that wasn’t mine in any way, I reveled in the uniqueness and the exclusivity of my gaze.
However, not long after that first night, I decided to go and watch the show put on at the Eden. From my place in the audience, I watched A*** perform one of the club’s best numbers. I can only describe it as a syncopated progression of movements, the ecstatic miming of a song written in English entitled — I learned later — “Sphinx.” I was struck by the lyrics, at least by the ones I could grasp in the moment. I came back to this song so many times, keeping it as an emblem, the enigmatic prophecy of all that ever came to pass between A*** and me. I was struck that night by certain lines, which I deciphered or guessed from watching their silent pronunciation on A***’s lips. Erratic blocks of words, fragments that resounded in me even more violently because they were incomplete, that I grasped only insofar as they seemed to articulate something of my relationship to this strange figure I had only recently succeeded in conquering.
Later I translated the exact words of the song and watched as their meaning, which I had imperfectly intuited that night, unfolded. I transcribe the essential lines here:
I can’t stand the pain
and I keep looking for all the faces I had
before the world began.
I’ve only known desire and my poor soul will burn into eternal fire.
And I can’t even cry,
a sphinx can never cry.
I wish that I could be
a silent sphinx eternally.
I don’t want any past
only want things which cannot last.
Phony words of love
or painful truth, I’ve heard it all before.
A conversation piece,
a woman or a priest, it’s all a point of view.
The vision comes back to me instantly: A*** crossing the stage in the feline roving of the choreography, embodying an enigmatic, silent figure twisting to the extreme limit of dislocation in miraculous movements that were syncopated but not staccato. Even as this body fades away, a spectral figure remains, immobile; the stage is populated with incarnations, sudden gestures, hieratic poses set in a relentless progression. There was something cat-like or divine in this body that, moved by some sly, sensual pleasure, was embodying in nonchalant strides a languid damnation, an immemorial fatality made into movement.
When I entered the dressing room, I found A*** immobile as if in prayer or confession, legs bent, forearms fixed on a high bar stool supporting A***’s entire body weight. Hands dangling, wrists slack, gaze abandoned and lost in the emptiness, then focusing on me as I entered and following me to where I sat down opposite. It was like the disdainful pose of the sphinx (or the image I had of it then), the same sharp aesthetic. I thought this to myself and, laughing, affectionately let slip, “my sphinx” — as if I had said “my love.” We remained face-to-face, our bodies as if petrified. A terror silted up in my throat; the desire I had felt welling up in me at the sight of those distant movements on the stage had been suspended. I could do nothing but adore. Those eyes, so black, fixed on me, subjected me to an unbearable torture.