PRINT November 2001


Pierre Klossowski

EVEN IN DEATH, Pierre Klossowski was inevitably linked with his younger brother, the painter Balthus. Almost all obituaries of the artist, writer, and translator, who died in Paris this August at age ninety-six, mentioned that his more famous sibling had died only six months earlier. Both vied in wry self-deprecation: Balthus summed up his own painting by saying, “I do surrealism in the style of Courbet,” while Klossowski claimed to be no artist, writer, thinker, or philosopher “but first, foremost, and always, a monomaniac.” His monomania consisted of a remarkably free expression of Sadeian erotic imagery in writing and drawings. This integration of frankly pornographic scenarios with philosophical and literary concerns made him attractive to writers like Georges Bataille and Pierre Jean Jouve, and later Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. As a draftsman, Klossowski made an endless number of clumsy, largescale images in graphite or colored pencil, typically showing, for instance, a clergyman fondling an adolescent boy, or a nude woman tied to a bed while a dwarf and another man both make plays for her. The key word here is “plays”—the work of both Balthus and Klossowski was much imbued with theatrical imagery, a legacy of the productions they'd seen in childhood. Klossowski stated, “My drawings, like my texts, are of a dramaturgical order. . . . For me, the most authentic vision of what I do is in what I show.”

While Balthus always denied the obvious eroticism of his own languid, pubescent girls, calling them “angels,” Klossowski's images, thanks to their theatrical presence, are highly self-aware. Hannibal Lecter, in Thomas Harris's best-selling novel Hannibal, not only admires Balthus, but claims him as kin: “[Hannibal] sent catalogs of the most interesting art shows to his cousin, the great painter Balthus, in France.” By contrast, Balthus's own brother rejected him as an artistic influence; instead, Klossowski claimed lineage with great literary and visionary artists of the past whose work also dealt with an element of eroticism, such as William Blake and Henry Fuseli. In rejecting Balthus as an influence, Klossowski also set aside many of his obfuscations.

Klossowski was refreshingly candid about his goals as erotic artist and writer. Unburdened by the acolytes who touted Balthus as “one of the great twentieth-century painters,” Klossowski always enjoyed a tiny but influential coterie of admirers. This guaranteed him publication by prestigious small presses and regular exhibitions of his art that continued up to his death. Nonetheless Klossowski spent his last decades in low-income, subsidized public housing in Paris' 13th arrondisse ment. (Given the erotomania of his work, many found it fitting that he lived at Number 69 on the rue de la Glacière.) Unlike his elusive brother, who preferred to stand alone in his generation, establishing few sustained artistic friendships or alliances, Klossowski always said that he created art as a search for “accomplices.” His many friends and admirers were attracted by his peculiarly French combination of intellectual credentials and erotic quirks.

Klossowski was still a teenager in 1923 when his mother Baladine's lover, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, introduced him to Andre Gide, a celebrated pedophile. Gide quickly persuaded Klossowski to send him pornographic stories and drawings about gay sexual adventures, to the point where the promiscuous Pierre found himself running out of true accounts and had to invent material to please the insatiable older man. In exchange, Gide introduced him to literary personalities of the day, including Jean Paulhan. An especially important friendship was established with Bataille, whose own works allied transgression, eros, and death in a highly Sadeian way. After a religious crisis during World War II, during which he tried and rejected monastic life, in 1947 Klossowski married Denise Marie-Roberte Morin-Sinclaire, a former French resistant who had been deported to concentration camps by the German occupants. She became central to his future writings in the guise of “Roberte,” a wife who is offered as sexual partner to all the writer's friends, in books like Roberte ce soir (1954) and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1959), part of the literary trilogy Les Lois de l'hospitalité. Also in 1947, he produced what has remained perhaps his most celebrated work, Sade mon prochain (literally, “Sade My Fellow Human Being,” although the English translation was titled “Sade My Neighbor”). Several more works appeared, including Le bain de Diane (1956) and Un si funeste desir (1963), all focusing on erotic imagery in the light of Sade.

Throughout, Klossowski maintained an intellectual curiosity and an appetite for literary labors. In the '30s, he attended the series of renowned seminars on Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind at Paris's École Pratique des Hautes Études, given by the philosopher Alexandre Kojève, sitting alongside other prestigious listeners like Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Queneau, Raymond Aron, and André Breton. Kojéve's analysis of Hegel's thoughts on the Master-Slave relationship, an interdependent one, would resurface in Klossowski's later work. His intellectual interests went beyond Hegel and Sade to Nietzsche, and his writings on the last made him a significant figure in France's modern appreciation of that philosopher. He also translated many works requiring sustained application that no mere dilettante could have accomplished. They included Les Poèmes de la folie (1930), a pioneering translation of Hölderlin's poetry realized in collaboration with Jouve, as well as works by Walter Benjamin, Kafka, Nietzsche (The Gay Science and Posthumous Fragments), Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), Paul Klee (Journal), Suetonius (The Twelve Caesars), Heidegger (On Nietzsche), The Trial of Gilles de Rais, Tertullian, and Virgil's Aeneid. The last translation, published in 1964, was admired by Foucault for its attempt to create a language somewhere between Latin and French, as a “negative.” Translated word-for-word from the Latin, disregarding French syntax, Klossowski's oddball version of the epic poem nevertheless, according to poet and critic Jacques Drillon, “has nothing missing . . . and has the extraordinary beauty” of the original work. Drillon added that Klossowski's version of The Aeneid is a “kind of unsurpassable masterpiece, but it's impossible to translate the way he did!” Once again, like all writers on two frères klo, we can compare and contrast with Balthus, whose favorite writers, according to his biographer Nicholas Fox Weber, were Ian Fleming and Barbara Cartland. More unsettlingly, Weber paints a devastating portrait of Balthus as denying his own Jewish origins and spouting anti-Semitic remarks in public, such as repeatedly referring to Metropolitan Museum of Art curator William Lieberman as “a horrid little Jew.” By marrying a former resistant who had been deported, Klossowski made clear his own stance on France's modern capitulation to fascism.

Klossowski was praised in Le Monde's obit for his “universe in which theological speculation met eroticism with a strong Sadeian and pederastic element, but without any vulgarity at all.” One way Klossowski avoided vulgarity—what Parisian praise, “sadistic, but never vulgar!”—was by maintaining a highly critical stance toward his “fellow human being” Sade, skewering readers who, he claimed, “do not realize that Sade escapes them as soon as they take him at his word, whereas they do not escape from Sade: they become his characters, more or less successfully.” He offered precise analytical descriptions of Sade's erotic world, observing that Sade's ideal “androgyne” is in fact not a “man-woman,” as the word's etymology implies, but rather a “woman-man,” or “gyne-andro,” a female with male sexual appendages. This kind of hair-splitting, just the sort of thing brainy French readers enjoy, demonstrates his preferred stance as rational observer at the orgy.

In 1965, Klossowski's last novel, Le Baphomet, appeared. When this convoluted medieval fantasy, in which a Grand Master (the Baphomet of the title) abuses an androgynous adolescent in a series of stiffly described tableaux, won a French critics' prize, the distinguished essayist Roger Caillois resigned from the jury in protest, citing the book's “shoddy elegance” and incorrect language. Among Le Baphomet's flaws is its overt theatricality; the author described writing it “as if I were describing a play that I was watching.” Still, this self-consciously visual inspiration attracted admirers like French filmmakers Pierre Zucca and Raul Ruiz, who made movies inspired by the character Roberte; Klossowski himself appeared on-screen in Robert Bresson's 1966 film Au hasard Balthazar. His diminutive, emaciated figure strongly contrasted with his mighty Sadeian statements, as French documentary filmmaker Alain Fleischer, who directed four short films starring Klossowski, observed in the French daily Libération: “In one film I made about him, Pierre Klossowski said, ‘I am an ogre.’ He sometimes made pronouncements like that, but he may as well have said, ‘I'm a firefighter.’ He was a very fragile little gentleman, nothing like an ogre, and we celebrated his ninety-fourth birthday together. The interview had no relation to his real character.”

After 1970, Klossowski focused almost entirely on visual art, with which he had only experimented before, creating visual equivalents for passages like the following from Roberte ce soir: “to dodge the blow that landed on his neck, the Hunchback burrowed his face between Roberte's thighs, and continues speaking with his nose rubbing against the Lady Inspector's underpants. . . At the very first bite, Roberte lets the whip drop, as her breast falls out of her torn blouse, starting with a pink nipple popping through a black silk screen.” His artworks were popular with dealers, especially in Spain and Italy, giving him a certain fame that his books had not previously enjoyed. As arch-literary, hieratical, and theatrical as his literary works, the drawings also had a certain ironic remove. In his subjects' sexual poses, Klossowski may be reminiscent of Balthus's erotic world. The brothers are both easily typed as pictorial voyeurs, but posterity may rate Klossowski more highly, because he pursued his manias in varied and productive ways, proving that intellectual adventurousness can keep monomania from being monotonous. Whereas Balthus, after being briefly invigorated by Surrealism, produced forty years of drearily repetitive canvases, Klossowski—if perhaps with less craft—dispersed his energies in liberated investigations into how language can be made visible.

Benjamin Ivry is a poet (Paradise for the Portuguese Queen), biographer (Maurice Ravel; Arthur Rimbaud; Francis Poulenc), and translator (Albert Camus: A Life; The Memoirs of Balthus).