It may seem like I’m repeating myself, but ‘once more’, it was as a part of FHAR (Front Homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire) that I knew Gilles Châtelet. A big, blond, strong beanpole. Talkative, gruff but cheerful. He was not a diligent attendee of the AGM, but joined others in the bistros where one could escape a little from the political droning. And then we’d end up at his place, for olé-olé parties….
I remember an argument between three FHAR queers, one an Algerian Sephardi, Gilles (who wasn’t) speaking for the Ashkenazis, Maud [Molyneux] for the Sephardis of Europe…the tone wasn’t all that elevated, it was more like ‘You’re just carpet and peanut sellers, we’ve got Marx and Freud’, ‘Exactly, Marx and Freud, you can keep them! Maïmonides, you’ve heard of that uncultivated German!’…. Maud concluding on the (imaginary) ancestral palace in Toledo, for which his cousins still had the key… ‘Spinozaaaaa, the name mean anything to you? I’m a European Sephardi and Proust is my cousin.’ Gilles had had a Jewish stepfather who he had loved a great deal, to the point of identification.
Gilles was resolutely masculine, even if he didn’t say no to certain escapades and nonconformist pranks. For all his masculinity, he could be just as disruptive as any nutcase. I learned very quickly that he was an academic, a mathematician (I who counted on my fingers!), and his stories of mathematicians could be pretty racy. ‘I was doing oral exams, a student came to me and said “I don’t know anything, but you can kiss me…”. “What did you say to him?” “To come in and shut the door—he was cute. But the little bastard enjoyed it just as much as I did!”
Gilles loved salacious situations, and told us how a future institutional feminist invited him to meet this submissive who lived opposite her, and take him up the ass while she watched—she had started a relationship with after he had exhibited himself from his window while putting pins into his genitals…. Then the poor guy revealed while Gilles was doing him that he was hetero and had only accepted this humiliation on the orders of his mistress. Isn’t sexuality one of the only spaces where hypocrisy can have a certain charm?
There was something thunderous in Gilles’s amusements; he had a large apartment in the seventh arrondissement where he held enormous parties. I remember a close friend of Gilles, one of the FHAR Maoists, masturbating to a record of German military music while Gilles showed him his buttocks….
I have only just begun to write on Gilles and it is these ass stories that come to mind. Maybe his beefy looks got me dreaming? But it’s above all because there is no way I could talk about his principal activities: mathematics and philosophy. Once, because of some equations he had published, a researcher had become convinced that Gilles had, without realising it, discovered the solution to a problem posed over a century ago. For a few days planet math was ablaze, Gilles received invitations from everywhere, propositions from American universities…and then silence fell again: the researcher had got his sums wrong. For Gilles, “It was funny to have gone through that.”
I was not that close to Gilles, but we met each other at friends’ parties. He was close to Guy Hocquenghem—a kind of scientific wingman for him, but it was more natural than that. In relations between mathematicians or physicists and literary types, the mathematicians can read the literature, but not vice versa.
They left together for Brazil, Martine Barrat had connnected them with one of his friends, a poet and teacher at a Samba school in a run-down area. Off they went, and when they came back to Paris, we were brought straight back to his apartment on rue Poissonière for a Samba demonstration, with Guy and Gilles in their carnival toucan costumes.
A Difficult Book
Gilles created a junction between mathematical and philosophical research. He had written a book, Les enjeux du mobile, where he went from equations to philosphical arguments, a very important book, which few were able to read. I was very honoured that he discussed general ideas with me. I didn’t follow the Deleuze and Guattari gang so much, I preferred Debord and Vaneigem. Gilles, basically above all rather a Bolshevik, appreciated Debord, in whom he recognised a Hegelian imprint. The situationists had been an influence on him as a teen. A Jesuit was prowling around him (not the client of his companion, who had just been whipped at their place and who Gilles sometimes put up), we had a telephone conversation where I poured out to him that for me, it was a logical fault to mix the fact that there had to be there a creative force that had no need to be created, with the idea that it must be a moral force, dispensing good and evil. Gilles grunted in agreement. He had translated the biography of a great nineteenth-century mathematician, a homosexual. I asked him, “Is there a homo way of resolving equations?” At first he got angry, then he said “It’s more complicated than that.”
At one time he had been living with a beautiful mestizo, a mathematician, who had been an old friend of a childhood friend/lover of mine. And then there was Béla. His absolute opposite. Fine and delicate where Gilles was chunky and powerful. Béla was a pianist and had made a career for himself in the Emirates, where his services included more than Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. In Paris, Gilles told me, Bela was also a gigolo, specialising in domination. A sling, a restraining harness, hung in their lounge. Between a couple of equations and a reading of Schopenhauer, Gilles helped out…. Now, don’t get too worried about the scandalous politics of this, but black masochists came to be treated as ‘plantation slaves’…. Not a particularly unusual demand in SM, where a session often gets rid of internal anguishes and traumas by enjoying them. Never one to be embarrassed by anything, Gilles gave them what they wanted, with a vocabulary you can imagine. Which earned him as thanks the compliment “You, you’re a real white man’, which left him pensive.
Béla and Gilles never stopped arguing. And then came AIDS. Both of them were infected, their scenes becoming more poisoned. Finally, Béla threw himself from a window before Gilles’s eyes.
He came to sleep in our guest room, stupefied by sorrow. There was a hole in his sock. His rosey face, his straw-coloured hair and his slightly winking eyes. I don’t know why, but I wanted him to listen to music; but the least sound cut through him…we had him eat, the ice cream was Béla’s favourite brand, he told us.
Béla’s death and the illness that weighed upon him didn’t temper his caustic spirit at all. One young guy had been hanging around him (Gilles knew very well that it was his position in the university that interested him). This young man had written a pathetic anti-homo (and pro-PS) accusation, and Gilles made it known to him that since he had written that about Guy Hocquenghem, they would never be friends. Mortified, this young arriviste would then tell people (this came back to Gilles’s ears) “They’re just a little gang, and there will be less and less of them left.” There was the death of Michel Cressole, and his heir began to pressurize Gilles, who just laughed. “What’s his speciality?” After the nth hospitalisation, he held forth ironically on the “catheter society, those who have grafted onto the body the little gate through which one is drained away drop by drop.”
He wrote To Live and Think Like Pigs, a violent charge against ultraliberalism, starting with an evening at La Palace. There were all sorts of nice inventions like the ‘Turbo-Bécassines’. One day, we must ask why it was homos like Hocquenghem and Châtelet who broke the ranks of those rallying to the PS (or to Chirac). The book was very well received, there was a eulogistic half-page article in Le Monde by a critic who he didn’t know. I remember a signing at Colette, not bad. One of his closest friends, an old Maoist, took umbrage and, on the pretext that Gilles had attacked Jacques Attali so savagely, went around telling everyone it was an antisemitic book, for example telephoning a producer at France Culture who was supposed to receive it to denounce Gilles. The producer took no notice, of course. A PS marginal, a strong man, Chevènement by name, wanted to meet him. I dissuaded him….
To Live and Think Like Pigs was written in ‘gonzo’ style, that’s obvious. But he doesn’t talk about homosexuality anywhere. He never wrote an article in the gay press. And he suffered for it: “But, you know, that’s for the twinks.” At the signing at Colette, he had met a kind of garçon fatale, a young well-educated guy who he became enamoured with. He never introduced us, but I think they travelled together. All of this is very mixed up in my head. There were periods in hospital when I went to visit him (I always felt like Marlene in The Devil is a Woman, visiting her protector in the hospital, topped off by a hysterical hat). There were fun evenings, one in my little two-room apartment where he stretched out, passing from mute silence to verbal explosion, copping a feel of a young man without arousing any protest.
And then we only spoke on the phone. He was depressed, and worse. He waited for a message from this boy. Nothing. And then Gilles no longer answered the phone. A week later, we heard news of his suicide.
A few weeks after, I was at a relaxed gathering of philosophers, near Grenoble. One philosopher-mathematician belonged to a circle who were working on Gilles’s thought, his path from maths into philosophy. I told him about the intimate Gilles I have recounted here. How can I forget the ‘wow, hot stuff!’, how can I forget his anger, his laughter?