Taking inspiration from Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) and the poet’s proclamation “Je est un autre” (I is someone else or I am an other), Pierre Guyotat’s Coma explores in episodic paragraphs the events leading up to his physical and psychiatric collapse over four years beginning in 1977 and continuing until he fell into a coma in 1981. Like the Marquis de Sade, Rimbaud, Comte de Lautréamont, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs, Guyotat does not flinch when faced with visceral sexuality and the fetor of cities, bodies, and human atrocities. Written in a continual, eternal present tense, Coma elides time and space, history and reference, the I and the other, providing a text that is a continual loop of events and of narrative, of memory and memoir, of fiction and reality. Guyotat looks deep within himself and sees us all – the coma is a reenactment of those hot and dense scintillas of time before and after we are – the pre- and post-human.
Coma is anti-genre. It is an anti-novel, an anti-memoir, and an anti-writer’s diary. The writing is sometimes classical and sometimes experimental, Guyotat perpetually searching for a new form of language and the roots of meaning. As the narrative progresses, flips back, reverses, jumps forward but remains still in the writer’s mind, still as in still moving – this frozen dynamism of memory and event – words accrue, sentences accrete, and paragraphs form, emphatically demonstrating Gertrude Stein’s assertion that “a sentence is not emotional, a paragraph is” (How To Write, 1931). As this architecture of language is performed, then an attendant demolition of the writer’s bodily functions is set in motion – as the text builds and strengthens, as the memories and history gain narrative weight, so Guyotat’s body weakens, becomes emaciated, his transparent skin turning into the very paper the text is written on. Guyotat asks what is writing? What is reading? “Tales of Samora Machel” – the inner text, the narrative he is trying to write while writing Coma – is, in Derridean terms, a “pharmakon” a help and a hindrance, a remedy and a poison, a cure to his writing block and the illness causing it.
Reading this book, I found myself becoming externalized by the text. At times, I felt I was peering over Guyotat’s shoulder as he was writing, reading but not knowing how the narrative would progress. At other times – and more intensely – I felt that I had become his inner ear, his tongue, his fingers composing the text as I read; as the sentences unraveled, I experienced a digestion and internalization of event, now I was Guyotat’s saliva, his blood, his semen – the electrical charges of his synapses. The only other writer who approaches Guyotat in his galvanization of literature, his knowledge of and disgust for what the body is capable of, his construction of an anatomy of language, is Antonin Artaud whose “Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society” and “Concerning A Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras” question, in turn, the writers own sanity and the very language he uses.
Pierre Guyotat came close to dying for his art. He wrote himself into a coma and this is the record of that descent/ascent. With its autobiographical/mnemonic illustrations and photographs – from Fra Angelico’s The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian (1438-40) [looking like some 15th century slasher movie, see above] to a still of the beautiful Lillian Gish driven insane in The Wind (1928) via photographs of indigenous Amazonian tribes, Coma is a meditative study of what it is to be a writer – what it is to be human – in the age of instant media. As Guyotat writes:
There is a kind of imbalance between how small we are physically and the enormity of the cerebral network of which we are the seat, and the enormity of the impulse toward the more we are through the heart. The skeleton, the organs themselves are worth nothing. What is of value is the network.
Any Cop?: Read this and then go out and hunt down, beg, steal, or borrow Eden Eden Eden, and Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers.