Pierre Klossowski

The Pantomime of Spirits

by Hervé Castanet (Author)
©2014 Monographs XXVI, 308 Pages


This book examines the many facets of the work of Pierre Klossowski (1905–2001). Klossowski first established himself as a writer and was known and admired by peers such as Bataille, Blanchot, Gide, Foucault, Deleuze and Lacan. But in 1972 he gave up writing to devote himself to his ‘mutism’: painting made up of large coloured drawings. In time he became as famous a painter as he had been a writer and theorist. Klossowski now has two separate groups of commentators: those concerned with his writings and those with his painting, with little overlap between the two.
Here, this separation is explicitly removed. Klossowski’s entire œuvre revolved around the concept of the gaze. Rarely has the gaze been so radically interpreted – as an active, mobile, evanescent object that breaks down the connections between representation and the visible. How is one to see the invisible divinity? This question plagued Klossowski, and he displaced it onto pornographic rituals. The pantomime of spirits is the scene, fixed in silence, where bodies meet – a knotting of desiring body and dogmatic theology. A creator of simulacra, Klossowski attempted to exorcise the ‘obsessive constraint of the phantasm’ that subjugated him in all these scenes.
Translated from the French by Adrian Price in collaboration with Pamela King.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • SARAH WILSON – Foreword: Klossowski our Contemporary
  • Introduction to the English-language Edition
  • Introduction
  • Klossowski as Reader
  • Sade: Evil, Perversion
  • Nietzsche: The Same, The Stimmung
  • Body, Currency, Utopia
  • Roberte: Exchanging the Unexchangeable
  • The Violence of the Gaze
  • Conclusion: Inhuman Diana
  • JUDITH MILLER – Mutation: Interview with Pierre Klossowski
  • A.R. PRICE – Translator’s Postface
  • Series index

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Foreword: Klossowski our Contemporary

The simulacre in its meaning as imitation is the actualisation of something in itself incommunicable or unrepresentable: properly speaking the phantasm in its obsessional constraint.


Pierre Klossowski is a writer, artist, filmmaker and translator of huge renown; a philosophe scélérat – a perfidious and rascally philosopher – and a théologien pornologue who broaches God through the word made flesh … Klossowski’s thought and art live among us. ‘Sade my contemporary’, Sade mon prochain often translated as ‘Sade my neighbour’, is a concept at the heart of some of his most important work.2 Hervé Castanet’s Pierre Klossowski: The Pantomime of Spirits reinforces the artist’s presence today for a new generation of English-speaking readers. It follows several Klossowski publications by the author.3

← ix | x →

Klossowski was always contemporary. After a precarious childhood expelled from Paris in 1914, surviving in wartime Berlin and then Geneva, he returned in 1923 as André Gide’s schoolboy ‘secretary’, to become part of the glittering literary milieu that would frequent his artist-mother Baladine’s salons. In 1930s Paris his first translations of German literature coincided with work for the psychoanalyst René Laforgue and his initiation into psychoanalytic literature; he would subsequently become involved with German emigré intellectuals in Parisian exile (including Walter Benjamin), their precarious lives and often tragic fates.4 In 1940s Paris, Klossowski’s pre-war writings reappeared as the volume Sade mon prochain; in 1950s Paris, his first silvery pencil drawings were exhibited in his brother Balthus’ former studio in the Cour de Rohan. This was the era of great creativity: La Vocation suspendue (1950) was followed by Roberte ce soir (1954), Le Bain de Diane (1956) and La Révocation de l’Édit de Nantes (1959). Klossowski, by now in his own mid-century, was perhaps not entirely a 1960s man: the optimism of Pop, Op and kinetic art were surely alien to him – yet 1960s Paris marked an explosion of discourse on the Marquis de Sade and Klossowski’s prefaces to new and definitive versions of his works.5 In 1967 a new essay on Sade appeared as ‘Le philosophe scélérat’ in the structuralist-orientated review Tel Quel and for Sade mon prochain’s second edition.6 ← x | xi → Klossowski joined Philippe Sollers’ theoretical study group and in 1968 exhibited in Geneva.

Klossowski’s wife Denise was tall and enigmatic. In contrast with the 1960s new woman, she was older, more severe; she was a survivor of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Denise was the focus of Klossowski’s writings and drawings, which were representations – simulacra – of her living, breathing body traversed with myriad palimpsests of great art from the past.

In the 1970s, Klossowski became even more topical, the contemporary of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, who so appreciated La Monnaie Vivante, the purple picture book whose black and white tableaux vivants denoted the female body as ‘living currency’. Woman in her plural manifestations became sign of the motor of desire traversing all hierarchies, all institutional infrastructures. Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy appropriated and reformulated Klossowski’s ideas.7 This generation turned from the collision of Marx and Freud (‘the personal is the political’) to Friedrich Nietzsche, to a darker philosophy and darker sexualities.

Klossowski abandoned literature from 1972 onwards, in favour of an art practice that was secret, obsessive and amateur in the truest sense, conducted without conventional materials or (for many years) an artist’s studio. This was also the era of his collaboration as producer and actor on three films, Raoul Ruiz’s La Vocation suspendue, 1977, L’hypothèse du tableau volé, 1979 and Pierre Zucca’s Roberte, filmed in 1977 (released 1979) where Denise rather than a professional actress played Roberte. Klossowski’s influence on filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo) or Michelangelo Antonioni was important; he frequented the Villa Medici in Rome, directed by his brother Balthus at this time. At the ‘moment of postmodernism’ (Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition was published in French in 1979), France selected the powerful yet bizarre combination of Daniel Buren and Pierre Klossowski’s large-scale drawings for the international Kassel Documenta ← xi | xii → exhibition of 1982: late conceptual art met the simulacra. Klossowski of course anticipated Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacres et simulation (1981) and its repercussions in France and America in the era of posthumous tributes to Andy Warhol …8

Five years younger than the century, Klossowski was by now in his eighties: these were the years of consolidation and the beginnings of his world-wide fame amongst a select, but different generation of intellectuals writing and thinking in English, who were rediscovering Klossowski’s peers such as Maurice Blanchot (not to mention the doyens of ‘French theory’ …). I was both mystified and elated by Klossowski’s 1990 Paris retrospective, where I first met the artist.9 Later in the decade, Klossowski crowned the short-lived bilingual series of texts I edited with his own ‘Decadence of the Nude’ (first published as ‘The Falling Nymphs’) and other art writings in conjunction with Maurice Blanchot’s analysis: ‘Laughter of the Gods’.10 Alas, Klossowski would not live to see our retrospective of his paintings and curious sculptures, nor meet his first cousin the artist Peter Spiro, still living in London, whose testimony at the time was – and is – invaluable.11 The exhibition travelled from London to Cologne and to Paris: Klossowski became once more a contemporary of the twenty-first-century art world.

* * *

← xii | xiii →

Klossowski’s oeuvre traverses disciplines: literature, philosophy, film, art and art history; he is surely a gift to psychoanalysis, with his early initiation into its texts and practitioners, his fascination with childhood, sexual fantasy, pederasty, wife swopping and above all the tropes of rape and voyeurism, which problematise the notion of the gaze. Politically incorrect par excellence, he offers via his writings and drawings an extraordinary psychoanalytic ‘place’ for reflection.12

Hervé Castanet is a practising psychoanalyst in Marseille – not the easiest of France’s port cities with its histories of plagues and prostitutes, exiles and immigrations, poverty and folklore: its glorious moments, and unexpected rebirths. I witnessed the great period of Marseille’s restored hospice-museum complex, La Vieille Charité in the late 1980s and early 1990s: it hosts Marseille’s vibrant literature and poetry scene, where Castanet plays an important role. In 2013 Marseille became European City of Culture, showcasing many new projects.

Castanet’s attitude towards ‘applied psychoanalysis’ – the transfer of the ‘cure’ from speaking patient to the narratives of text or image – is ambiguous: ‘Rightly, applied psychoanalysis has a bad press and its results are vain’ he argues … ‘The psychoanalyst becomes a detective and slides imperceptibly from the product, the work, to its producer, the creator’s unconscious’.13 He takes issue with the notion of ‘application’ and the production of a parallel narrative that might ‘explain’ what the work or the artist ‘really’ means; yet he throws the option back as a possibility – provided we deal with ‘un réel nouveau’ … (To what extent might this ‘new real’ be defined as a work of collaboration between author, critic/ ← xiii | xiv → psychoanalyst, audience or reader?)14 Klossowski engaged from the start of his career with applied psychoanalysis and with its origins: Freud himself. As we know, besides Freud’s use of classical myth as trope with which to condense contemporary behaviour (such as the Oedipus complex), he analysed Wilhelm Jensen’s Pompeian novel Gradiva, with its archaeological metaphor for the unconscious and its dream frame.15 He then turned to painting: Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (making a ‘Freudian’ error based on mistranslation around the famous inverted vulture he perceived in the work …).16 Freud saw the painting as the locus classicus for Leonardo’s conundrum of ‘two mothers’, not to mention his speculations on the artist’s homosexuality. Stepping outside the frame, as it were, Klossowski depicted Freud himself gazing at Leonardo’s painting more than once – drawings all the more disconcerting when rendered with his habitual children’s coloured crayons.17 Following the striking precedents of applied psychoanalysis in Freud’s review Imago (founded 1912), René Laforgue, Klossowski’s mentor, analysed the poet Baudelaire’s neuroses in 1930; and Freud’s Essais de psychanalyse appliquée (including studies on Moses and Goethe) were published by Gallimard in 1933, yet Klossowski’s ‘applied’ psychoanalysis of the Marquis de Sade met with opprobrium.18

← xiv | xv →

As far as art history is concerned, Hervé Castanet is perfectly ‘at home’ with the discipline, most notably in his essays on Asger Jorn and the Bauhaus imaginiste or the artist-architect Constant’s ‘New Babylon’. He is happy with photography – Joel-Peter Witkin – and has written about photographic self-portraiture (Michèle Sylvander) for an exhibition in Marseille. These texts conform to the genre of the French essai: they are written in the historic present, highly conscious of their construction, style and elegance, with minimal footnoting and no ostensible engagement with specific theorists or art historical traditions; Castanet’s first book on Klossowski’s art, La Manipulation des images, Pierre Klossowski et la peinture (2001) is also in essai mode. In The Pantomime of Spirits, Castanet often performs as the learned exegete of ‘difficult texts’, offering penetrating summaries and analyses for the non French-speaking reader. The title of his collected essays on art, S.K.beau, – a Lacanian pun on the question ‘is it beautiful?’ (est-ce que c’est beau?) – refers us to Lacan’s stepping-up of the meaning of escabeau (stepladder) with more complex associations of the work as sublimation and self-investment for the artist (initially Joyce); the work as elevation then, but also distortion, and a ‘real’ (Lacanian of course) whose ‘S.K.’ interrupts and precedes any simple perception of the beau. Here, the gaze itself is a construct – a dark hole that occludes at least part of the field of visibility, inciting painter, photographer or filmmaker to make a ‘show’.19

References to Lacan or his epigones such as Jacques-Alain Miller pepper Castanet’s writing; he offers us, then, his post-Lacanian Klossowski. Yet Klossowski evades us all: his mindset and profound involvement with multiple languages, with pre- and post-linguistic thought and imaging, call to us from another era. In fact the situations that a psychoanalyst might indeed work through with a ‘Klossowski-as-analysand’ are not treated explicitly: multiple or absent parenting and intense sibling rivalry (the painter Balthus, who usurped the position of ‘elder’ brother taking ← xv | xvi → the title of ‘Count’) are the most egregious of these; and though the voyeuristic obsession, woman as mother, wife, mistress and castrator are obvious issues, dominating all is surely the problem of ‘art as a substitute for life’ … If Klossowski’s multiple voices emanating from one source are not the talking that solicits a ‘talking cure’, then what is, in fact, the status of his work – or the status of art itself, from a classic psychoanalytic perspective?

Klossowski never ceases to surprise and to reverse critical expectations. With our Whitechapel catalogue at proof stage, Thadée Klossowski, the artist’s nephew, allowed me access to Klossowski’s love letters to Betty, the English Alice painted by his brother Balthus in 1933 (beloved by visitors to the Centre Pompidou) – a canvas Castanet has also analysed, embracing the Pygmalion-like dream narratives of the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve who once owned the work.20 Betty Holland married Pierre Leyris, Klossowski’s school friend, and later France’s greatest translator of English poetry and prose.21 Klossowski’s letters to Betty, extending from 1930 to 1945, fundamentally change our perception of the ‘cult of Denise’ accepted by generations of Klossowski scholars.22 For it was Betty who occasioned Klossowski’s blinding encounter with female sexuality: his escape from the heady homosexual world of André Gide (to whom his mother Balandine and her lover Rainer Maria Rilke had astonishingly confided her young son …) and the interwar Parisian world of erudite misogyny and mascarade, typified by André Breton and the surrealists. This erudition was predicated, of course, upon female disempowerment and male fear (see the surrealist panoply of male writers with closed eyes surrounding Magritte’s naked woman in Je ne vois pas la femme cachée dans la forêt …).23 This disempowerment subtends the ← xvi | xvii → canon of great male writers and artists into which Klossowski inscribed himself, firstly as a translator, then via his own creative writings.

In the letters to Betty, Klossowski registers his moments of despair and unrequitable distance from his love (his ‘love object’), a woman so different, so kindred he could write to her in German. He himself asks what a psychoanalyst would make of his predicament: ‘My dear Betty, you have departed, leaving me face to face with my appalling feebleness – here a psychoanalyst would say ‘Aha! Aha! (the imbecile) the appalling feebleness I was forced to experience in front of you this dreadful morning’.24 His intimate knowledge of Sade as both writing, écriture, and as active, visualised fantasy – and a frightening sociological ‘Sade-in-context’ he translated from the German – preceded his physical intimacy with this notionally correct English woman.25 He sent Betty Sade’s Les Infortunes de la vertu as early as 1930: ‘You’ll find there an innocent young girl, continually condemned, pursued, persecuted, whipped, bitten, violated and dishonoured, who, in love with her virtues, is unaware of the greatest, her only vice: curiosity’.26

Included with the letters are inkblot ghosts and occasional watercolours, amateurish and delightfully apt: a priapically erect and delicately feathery Papageno, Mozart’s bird-catcher, for example. These anticipate his later practice, while referring us back again to the children’s books and ← xvii | xviii → other images that constantly peopled his imagination.27 It is the Whitsun letter of 1934 (first quoted) which opts for explicit excess: a long drawn out fantasy in which Betty, overpowered by a group of half-naked boys, has her blouse ripped to shreds and is rammed by a huge organ while Pierre, the onanistic onlooker, narrator and author is likewise violated, then engages in various practices with her, both Sadean and tender … (Here we – a notionally male we – become spies reading private correspondence, joining Klossowski as voyeurs of the imagination …) Betty, pleasured, furious and shamed is calmed ultimately by the sight of the pure waters of the Palais Royal … ‘Betty, I have pursued you for years, pursued you through city quarters, great capitals, hotel rooms, stations, novelty shops, forests. Everywhere one of your objects, forgotten somewhere, bears witness to your recent passage; I have descended into subterranean galleries, I have long wandered in obscure labyrinths giving soon onto a phosphorescent lake where you were boating with Sade’.28 So many of Klossowski’s future themes, themes woven around the trope of Denise/Roberte, are played out here.

The passion for Betty – and its fulfilment – extends to the point of primordial encounter: not a postulated Lacanian ‘lack’ but le sexe de la femme, the place of genesis itself: ‘that which the eye should not see’. Freud used the classical metaphor of the Medusa’s head for this encounter.29 Klossowski would work through the experience, repeatedly using the tropes of rape ← xviii | xix → and castration such as Tarquin and Lucretia, first gloriously embodied for the princes of Renaissance Italy. It was after our London show that the drawings in pale pencil – magnificence fallen from grace – Roberte and the Colossus and Judith and Holophernes (1956) were rediscovered and shown in Paris.30 Klossowski in ekphrastic mode would address these tropes in writing: their afterlives in memory becoming present; a present where the hyperintellectual and hypersexual intertwine like bodies with the past. Notably his ‘Judith by Frédéric Tonnerre’ (concurrent with ‘Decadence of the Nude’) ‘opens’ out the tableau of a voluptuous Judith, her long fingers piercing the decapitated Holophernes’ half-opened eyelids, which still yearn to gaze, even in death, upon her sex. This ‘unbearable vision enclosed within the chiaroscuro of the tabernacle’ unfolds onto a scene where a bourgeois family (contemporary with Tonnerre, the fictive nineteenth-century painter) buys lemonade on the Champs Elysées … the bathos, too, is almost unbearable: is this the eruption of the ‘real’ world for Tonnerre, for Klossowski or ourselves?31

For me the key to Klossowski’s later work of the 1970s is a constellation of thought of the 1930s where Sade, Max Scheler (the sense of suffering), Benjamin (aura and reproduction) and the encounter with a living female body (Betty) come together.32 The frame is another translation project Klossowski evidently discussed with Benjamin, who had published a long article on the matriarchal theories of Johann Jakob Bachofen’s Mutterrecht (he was fascinated by the role of the feminine within modern capitalism at this time …).33 Only in 1965 did Klossowski publish an article on the ← xix | xx → mythical and cult origins of a ‘certain behaviour of Roman ladies’, which appeared as a book in 1968, its frontispiece his Diana and Acteon (becoming a stag) of 1954.34 Here, he summarises Bachofen and issues of the sexual differentiation in effigy and legend of once androgynous gods: the long debate involved the congruence of nineteenth-century classics, anthropology, the history of religions and language with a focus, too, on etymology. The argument, the practice and the fantasy of female-dominant societies are still topical.35 Evidently the modern Rome, whose vices were castigated by Saint Augustine in his City of God, was horribly ‘contemporary’; yet it was there, in theatres or circuses, that the evolution of the Asiatic Mother Goddess was played out in debased versions of divine adultery, where the celebrations of hierogamy became a performance of painted courtesans, a mythological grotesque. The once-Augustinian analysis applies to our celebrity culture today …36

Klossowski’s ‘mislaid’ translation of Saint Augustine’s City of God surpasses the story of T.E. Lawrence and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom manuscript lost at Reading station as an acte manqué … His Latin translations included Tertullien in 1948 and Suetonius in 1959 and his controversial rendering of Virgil’s Aeneid in 1964, respecting the Latin word order.37 The bizarre masquerade of a Roman orgy with black and white photographs by Pierre Zucca accompanies the propositions – in a sexual sense – of La Monnaie Vivante, 1970. It was in fact a highly political text. While France produced Pierre Klossowski and Michel Foucault, Britain at the same time enjoyed televised bathos: Frankie Howerd and Up Pompei!, ← xx | xxi → with Senator Ludicrus Sextus, his daughter Erotica, the slave Lurcio … The BBC series, I, Claudius prolonged our Roman fever (we too were once subjects of Hadrian …). Yet fictional time warps, the tantalising meanings of historical kitsch and recognition of the actor or actress in and out of role, were problematics that the most banal British TV viewers shared with Klossowski at this time.38

Finally, why is ‘Sade my neighbour’ Klossowski’s most important concept? We must return to the first appearance of his essay ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Qui est mon prochain?, written in October 1938. Klossowski’s matrilineal Jewish descent was a perpetual secret. Referring to the French terror, he declares: ‘the revolutionary government found its most original and most concrete expression in the extermination of the aristocrats, while the national-socialist government found this expression in the extermination of the Jews, these two categories of the “exterminated” in fact giving a living signification to the principles evoked: the people as sovereign, and race.’ Klossowski made the impermissible parallel between Sade’s description of France as a regicide nation, and contemporary nazism: a ‘nation whose republican model could be maintained only through many crimes because it is already in the realm of crime.’ Klossowski’s thought was honed at this moment by the lectures of Alexandre Kojève, and besides the works he translated, he was surely aware of the disturbing political theology of Carl Schmitt and his distinction between the inimicus (individual enemy) and the hostis (collective enemy).39 Herein lies the uncanny twinning of the words for enemy, ‘host’ and ‘hospitality’, a proximity haunted by the fantasy of the ‘enemy’ within our midst. The trope of Flûchtlingspolitik (the politics of the exile) is permanently entwined here with that of Feindkonstruction: ← xxi | xxii → the construction of the enemy: friend or fiend? The paradigms of etymological reversal – the pharmakon of words with opposite meanings – were at their origins linked to ritual and sacrifice: hence the French Revolution’s killing of a king and the Nazi’s desire for the ‘sacrifice’ of an entire race become coeval … In both Popular Front celebrations such as Jean Renoir’s film La Marseillaise, 1938 (with citizen extras) and the 150th anniversary celebrations of 1939, the French Revolution was currently being re-enacted on the streets. Klossowski’s Sade addressed his contemporaries in this context.40

Klossowski, writing from the perspective of his entangled personal and intellectual identities, Polish, German, French, Catholic and Calvinist – and his Jewish secret – saw his text become prophecy. From Christ to Kristallnacht … While he begins and ends ‘Who is my neighbour?’ with the parable of the Good Samaritan and Christian love, it was published under a rubric ‘The Forces of Hatred’ in December 1938 in the aftermath of the Nazi’s ‘Night of Broken Glass’: anti-Semitism become terrifyingly ‘real’ in the destruction of synagogues and shops and deportations, one night that was the harbinger of the internecine destruction of nations. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is the germ of ‘Sade my neighbour’, their genesis a few months apart.41 Within the College of Sociology, ‘the Sadian secret society par excellence’, the Society of the Friends of Crime, Klossowski lectured on Sade amidst the Revolutionary celebrations of 1939, citing the eighteen hundred acts of guillotining that the Marquis witnessed from his window in the Picpus prison … ‘All in all, the vision of society in a permanent state of immorality is presented as a utopia of evil; ← xxii | xxiii → this paradoxical utopia corresponds to the virtual state of our modern society. […] Method is put to the service of regression’.42

This is why Sade is our contemporary; why the Iranian artist, Barbad Golshiri, uses the tropes of Sade and Revolutionary bloodbath in the political works he smuggles into the ‘rest of the world’ for us to see.43 Precisely as a novelist and artist of cruelty and the immoral, of collaboration, of jouissance in shame and impotence rather than resistance, Klossowski is our contemporary today.


XXVI, 308
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
mutism the gaze the visible divinity dogmatic theology
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, XXVI, 2014. 308 pp.

Biographical notes

Hervé Castanet (Author)

Hervé Castanet is a psychoanalyst and professor of psychoanalysis in Marseille, France. He is a member of the École de la Cause freudienne and the World Association of Psychoanalysis, as well as the author of eighteen books, notably on the gaze, perversion and the relationship between the arts and psychoanalysis.


Title: Pierre Klossowski