Snap! Blow! The consensus of thinking
Though he once lamented that “the novel never had any affection for me,” Abdelkébir Khatibi (El Jadida, 1938–Rabat, 2009) was not known as a poet either. And yet, two distinctive collections of poetry — Le Lutteur de classe à la manière taoïste (Sindbad, 1976) and Aimance (Al Manar, 2003) — conspicuously bookend his career and punctuate his œuvre. My observation is, of course, a massive oversimplification, as Le Lutteur de classe à la manière taoïste — whose appearance in Matt Reeck’s translation as Class Warrior — Taoist Style marks the first English-language edition of Khatibi’s poetry — was preceded by three debut works of prose that form the cornerstone of Khatibi’s reputation as littérateur and intellectual: the landmark autobiographical novel La Mémoire tatouée (Denoël, 1971), the key collection of essays La Blessure du nom propre (Denoël, 1974), and the anti-Zionist pamphlet Vomito blanco : le sionisme et la conscience malheureuse (Union générale éditions, 1978). Furthermore, Aimance is more accurately described as a “collection of collections”: progressively published and republished in a number of formats and venues between 1986 and 2003, it underwent heavy and heavily unforgiving modification, manipulation, and redaction at Khatibi’s hands for the definitive, expanded edition included in Œuvres de Abdelkébir Khatibi, II : poésie de l’aimance (La Différence, 2008). Class Warrior represents, in this view, a Khatibian anomaly, easily overlooked, frequently lost in the expansive sea of his œuvre, especially in relation to the dominance of the younger poetic sister Aimance and her drawn-out time-to-publication.
A massive oversimplification, also, because Khatibi’s work defies my neat classificatory distinctions between novel and poetry, a trait common to much of the work of Maghrebi intellectuals of Khatibi’s generation (though again, Class Warrior remains an anomaly within Khatibi’s writing: unlike Aimance, it is resolutely poetry-like in appearance). Khatibi’s appearance on the literary scene of the 1970s followed an earlier emergence of translingual francoarab texts in the 1950s, a moment in the mid-twentieth century overshadowed by broader movements of global decolonization and new independences. As critic Christopher Miller remarks, many texts dating from this period “changed the way the French language would be used by citizens of the African states colonized by the French and granted independence.” True as that may be, the earlier generation of francoarab writers were, in Pierre Joris’s wry assessment of editorial realities, nevertheless at the mercy of the “contingencies of the diasporic situation, in this case the French publishers’ insistence for books circumscribed in ways that make the foreign text ‘readable’ to a European audience.”
In these formulaic editorial equations, something always snaps. In the long lyric sequence that brings Class Warrior to a close, Khatibi sings precisely of this.
and so I abandon the ordered course […]
each time my words exile me to where the origin breaks off
each time I begin to speak I snap the consensus of thinking.
Something always undoes the editorially imposed straitjacket at its fray. Something always pokes a damning little hole in its happy-smug consensus of thinking. The Maghrebi writers almost always switched the coded gears of literary idiom, almost always abandoned the ordered dis/course of generic and formal editorial politics. With no prior warning. Take the first lines of sequence 7 in Class Warrior.
I like the gazelle running on the beach
and like a gust of wind I disappear
into the sand and glistening water (8)
These backhanded lines from Class Warrior’s opening sequences obliquely evoke the most ancient genre of Arabic poetry, the qaṣīda or polythematic ode, the most archetypal of which opens with images of marks and traces left in the sand for the gusts of wind to disappear. Over them I weep my beloved, for you are gone, lovelorn poets in intense mourning over heartbreak and loss who … inexplicably divert their attention to florid descriptions of desert fauna. They evoke them in manic detail. Reeck’s translation extends this innermost of psychodramas outward into an expansive metaphor of erotic and editorial desire. In sequence 8, Reeck transforms the gazelle into an English vocable — the gaze in gazelle — worthy of Edmond Jabès’s most passionate wordplays.
in your gaze there’s a strange scratch
I will call this thing color (9)
Reeck’s poetic, translational clin-d’œil augments an absence in poetic register, which in the original French flatly reads “il y a dans ton regard une étrange griffure.” Though the animal griffe (claw, talon) isn’t nearly as visible in the English scratch, the vocable gazelle more than amply makes up for it. It is a translational coup for Reeck, for whom the gaze in gazelle and the desire of/for the gaze of/in the gazelle reappear in the ludic declaration “you’re as desirable as a gazelle tattoo” (10): “the back and forth of a woman tattooing,” goes the qaṣīda by Labīd Ibn Rabīʿa (c. 560–661), “her indigo / in rings scattered, the tattooing newly revealed above them.” But it’s in Class Warrior’s final lyric passage that the gazelle clasps the textual loop of beginning and ending, where the gazelle becomes the resolution to the perennial poetic problem of bringing a poem to an end, of ending the reign of regimented imposition.
the country where I recognize the spurge’s flower
and the gazelle’s hooves […]
a gazelle runs over the sand my fatigue dissipates
the gazelle’s femininity embraces my orphan suffering (44–45)
The gazelle’s movements, her gaze, her desires, mirror those of the Maghrebi writers, warrior-wanderers whose precise poetic gestures Khatibi describes through words that reveal the novel undecidability of their enterprise: “and so my metaphor is a vague outline […] / living in time is a migratory art” (8).
The migratory art of the Maghrebi novelists-cum-poets of the late ’70s and early ’80s was an art born both of words and of movements across generic, formal, and linguistic registers. In Class Warrior, Khatibi weaves references at once archaic and hypermodern into a poetic calligraphy — “a shapeshifting” (4), “orthographic trace” (17) — of forty sequences or stations, each of which halts upon “a rainbow of precise gestures” (4). Beyond the archaic qaṣīda, Khatibi’s oblique calligraphies “practice combinatory lovemaking” (6); in fact, they “reside in the combinatory” (26), an erotic poetic-literary dwelling that brings Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé and Lautréamont together with someone like George Oppen. For many of the Maghrebi writers of Khatibi’s generation, the move from the prosaic to the less prosaic was a combinatory art. Their first texts were never quite novels in the first place, though they sure did share the genre’s appearance, length, and dialogical registers. That what followed was never always quite poetry either comes as no surprise. After Talismano and its follow-up Phantasia (Sindbad, 1986), for instance, Meddeb dropped prosaic prose and its verbosity in pursuit of short, dense, impacted, “musicated,” highly referential, and tightly wrought stanzaic forms in texts like Tombeau d’Ibn Arabi (Fata Morgana, 1987) and Blanches traverses du passé (Fata Morgana, 1997). Ditto Khatibi: after La Mémoire tatouée and the intervening essays, he struck back with Class Warrior.
It was an ineluctable declaration and act of war. “An improbable mash-up,” even, as David Fieni puts it, “of Marxism and Taoism.” Except “Taoism is not a common point of repair for Khatibi,” insists Reeck in his introduction to the translation, more “a rhetoric and a symbolic cache of poetic value” (xiii). Nor does Marxism present any more than “a nebulous grounding for an authoritative reading of Class Warrior,” in which “Marxism’s revolutionary connotations are deployed as a means to generate the manifesto-like ethos of the poem” (xiv). For Khatibi ridicules. He derides. He does a bit. Ain’t no Karl here. Just Groucho.
when a revolutionary reads Marx
he puts it into effect with vigilance
when a liberal reads Marx
sometimes he keeps it in mind sometimes he forgets
when a fascist reads Marx
he breaks into laughter
if he didn’t laugh at all
Marx wouldn’t be Marx
but my adage says
the real revolution has no heroes (5)
Rather than take the title Class Warrior — Taoist Style seriously, we should read it obliquely, the way a card tossed onto the game table beseeches us to call its bluff. “So practice oblique thinking” (13) is Khatibi’s injunction, “that’s why the illness / is the oblique doorway of your disorder” (31) his diagnosis. Elsewhere, Khatibi draws on Claude Lévi-Strauss and calls this the “axe oblique” of thinking. Reading Class Warrior obliquely through select keywords-concepts, as inflected through the quirks of translation — they’re slashes dashed across Khatibi’s œuvre up to 1976 and beyond, they’re transversal marks slapping against modern and contemporary poetics — just might be more conducive to grasping the position that the text occupies in the landscape of francoarab literature. I’m only going to talk about one of these words.
Cum. The poem is full of injunctions, imperatives, directives. It’s full of adages, aphorisms, and dicta. It opens with an insistence on the word word — “history is a word / ideology is a word / the unconscious a word” — then cedes way to a first aphorism.
words are like dares
in the mouths of the ignorant (1)
The sage paucity of the aphoristic, in deep resonance with Jabès, will continue to punctuate the text: for example, “the secret is to remain within the wound that is the world” (20), or “while talking about his wandering an ancient sage said / I don’t know if the wind pushed me along or whether I pushed the wind” (25). Like gazelle, words fizzle, disappear, blow in the wind, cease being just words once subjected to the gaze, once vocalized. No sooner do they spurt out of our ignorant mouths that they vaporize into plumes of vocable spumes.
the wave hits the dancing spume […]
so by three degrees the power rises over the spume […]
in the flecks of foam my form is changing […]
one note brings back the spume (43–44)
In Class Warrior, a textual movement away from the foaming, frothy mouths of ignorami pulls us down from top to bottom, from voice, mouth, and head to well below the belt, then back again.
the genitals and the butt touch
that’s where the body’s desires are cut off
I heard it said
that the revolution is universal coitus (6)
From here, shot upon shot of semen and genitals blow up all over Class Warrior, a form of “vibratory discourse” (18), a “resonant chord” that “resounds on the vibratory sands” (23), “born of this trembling / without origin” (32).
it’s better to cum [foutre] on top of the class enemy
that’s why the revolutionary cum [cri révolutionnaire]
can slide down [gicler dans] the throat (11)
it’s better to swallow [avaler] the class warrior while dancing (19)
the warrior doesn’t suck his mother’s breast
nor his father’s dick
he swallows them [il les sublime] (29)
while breathing swallow [libère en respirant] your neverending madness (31)
when I cum into your mouth [je t’encanaille] rinse out your mouth (41)
Curiously absent from Émile Littré’s etymological dictionary, the verb gicler (to spurt, squirt, splash, scram) was not in the lexical field of literary discourse prior to the twentieth century. It is all the rarer in nineteenth-century poetry — it doesn’t seem to be a part of nineteenth-century erotic discourse, it is nowhere to be found in Alfred Delvau’s 1850 Dictionnaire érotique moderne, it doesn’t even appear in Paul Verlaine’s Hombres — though its earliest attested usage from 1542 means faire jaillir (to spring, gush, spout), and one of its origins has been attributed to the mid-thirteenth-century verb cisclar, “crier à haute voix, siffler, pleuvoir et venter” (to scream out loud, to whistle, to rain and be windy): the cri révolutionnaire’s transformation into revolutionary cum makes more sense against this etymology. On the other hand, unlike gicler, jaillir is all over Baudelaire and Mallarmé, with twenty-three occurrences in the 1897 arrangement of Divagations alone. Reeck’s liberty with the translation — slide down for gicler dans (blows in), he swallows them for il les sublime (he sublimates them, makes them sublime), while breathing swallow for libère en respirant (while breathing liberate, set free), I cum into your mouth for je t’encanaille (I debase you) — leans against unfulfilled aspirations, the tensions and frustrations of metaphorical, temporalized usages of jaillir, “flying off the clock,” as in Baudelaire’s “La chambre double” from Le Spleen de Paris.
Je vous assure que les secondes maintenant sont fortement et solennellement accentuées, et chacune, en jaillissant de la pendule, dit : — « Je suis la Vie, l’insupportable, l’implacable Vie ! »
[I swear that now the seconds are strongly, solemnly accentuated and each, flying of the clock, cries, “I am Life insupportable. I am implacable Life.”]
Baudelaire’s dancing pendulum coughs up or expectorates or hawks up phlegm for time, and Mallarmé’s “Crise de vers” and “Le mystère dans les lettres” likewise insist on metrical modulations, doubling up with the splashing splashes, the “glistening and dripping” of “éclaboussures jaillies.”
Selon moi jaillit tard une condition vraie ou la possibilité, de s’exprimer non seulement, mais de se moduler, à son gré.
Arcane étrange ; et, d’intentions pas moindres, a jailli la métrique aux temps incubatoires.
Tout, à part, bas ou pour me recueillir. Je partis d’intentions, comme on demande du style — neutre l’imagine-t-on — que son expression ne se fonce par le plongeon ni ne ruisselle d’éclaboussures jaillies : fermé à l’alternative qui est la loi.
[According to me, there arises quite late a true condition or the possibility not just of expressing oneself, but of modulating oneself, as one likes.
What a strange mystery: and, from no lesser intentions, metrics appeared, during incubatory times.
All, apart, under my breath, or to concentrate. I started out from intention, as one wants a style — neutral, one imagines — and neither too dark by plunging deep nor too blinding by getting out of water, glistening and dripping: opposing the alternative that is the law.]
Keeping down the revolutionary cum, its blowing inside, into, up out of your throat, “pour[ing] out of your resonating larynx” is a page taken right out of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror and its “long hymn of adoration.”
Les notes de ta voix jaillissaient, de son larynx sonore, comme des perles diamantines, et résolvaient leurs collectives personnalités, dans l’agrégation vibrante d’un long hymne d’adoration.
[The notes of your voice pour out of your resonating larynx like diamantine pearls resolving their collective personalities into the vibrant aggregation of a long hymn of adoration.]
The imploding cumstain — even in your throat, following Reeck’s rendition of cri — leaves a deeper mark than the scream. Odious stains, in Lautréamont’s words, “hideous stigmata,” “indestructible rosettes.”
Ils remarquèrent sur mon front une goutte de sperme, une goutte de sang. La première avait jailli des cuisses de la courtisane ! La deuxième s’était élancée des veines du martyr ! Stygmates odieux ! Rosaces inébranlables !
[They noticed on my brow a drop of sperm and a drop of blood. The first had gushed from a courtesan’s thighs! The second had spurted from the martyr’s veins! Hideous stigmata! Indestructible rosettes!]
Reeck’s antithetical deployment of translation, both fluid and jerky, systematizes Khatibi’s poetics. If Marxism and Taoism are but the confused and fleshless seeds of the poem, poetic fertility must lie elsewhere. Gicler and jaillir become less explosive than implosive: that’s why gicler is slide down, that’s why sublime and libère are swallow. They counter the explosive cumming of foutre. They draw out the cum of encanailler.
A few dirty words make no poem (unless, of course, your name is Paul Verlaine), but idiosyncratic translation snaps linguistic consensus, it sublimates the “aqueous rhetoric” that pervades Class Warrior — “stick to the aquatic mode of production” (19), “will the aquatic vibrate in response to my drunkenness?” (37) — except it’s more fluids than aquatics: cum, semen, spit, wine, lots of wine (and the odd bit of vapor and weed). Khatibi’s lingual transubstantiation at Reeck’s hands would not have been possible without a theory of poetic language.
this isn’t simple word play
meditate on the gyre of double language (15)
Reeck’s idiosyncratic translation relies upon Khatibian notions of doubling, and invisible free movement between languages.
the border between two countries is invisible
that’s how I can merge with your language without losing myself […]
confront the rapidity of my language and learn (21)
don’t give in to the agile cruelty of my language
at every moment vacillate in the double mirror (23)
Le Lutteur de classe/Class Warrior incites the free movements of translation between French and English by reverting to the possibilities of the mirror and its infinite doublings, strategically concentrated at the poem’s non/end: “the pure image quavers between two mirrors” (36); “the singular and the plural touch the void / the mirror pivots on every cold surface” (38); “in rupturing the mirror [the signs of human drifting] exceed their being” (43); “false mirror the beauty that beguiles you […] / the nomadic mirror is empty” (45); “you think you’re living but you’re just playacting in front of your mirror” (46). Reeck’s translation opens a “double universe” (10) where words may be “untied” in order to “trace out a spiral” (38) of “crystalline” (1, 9, 14, 25, 35) linguistic infinity.
With this much freedom comes a massive “struggle,” for the movements across languages fundamentally “alter the meaning of number” (7). They bring George Oppen’s remarkable sentence into view.
By the shipwreck
Of the singular
We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.
In his singularity, Khatibi did not have it easy. Reeck relays how “Edward Said […] infamously dismissed Khatibi” by observing in an interview that he’s “‘a nice guy but peripheral […] a kind of Moroccan equivalent of Derrida’” who “‘doesn’t have the force or the presence of the place or the location inside French culture that Sartre or Foucault do or had.’” Reeck calls out Said for his disregard of “a writer with concerns resembling his own,” for shunning Khatibi for being apart, an anomaly, when he was actually part of something larger. It remains “almost inexplicable” how Said’s “remarks smack of condescension” (x).
Poetry, also, has never had it easy. It remains dismissed, for indeed it is inadmissible, in Denis Roche’s infamously sacrificial, sententious declaration, for “none shall sing worthily,” in Ben Lerner’s take on the historical hatred of poetry. So much so that Reeck’s translation reads as an exercise in excess: bold, daring, provocative, translation that itself becomes “poetry,” in the sense of “a word for an outside that poems cannot bring about, but can make felt, albeit as an absence, albeit through embarrassment.” All the more so with specific regard to the poetic amnesia of the francoarab world and its literary consumers. Class Warrior gleefully partakes of the poetic tradition of singular-yet-numerous dejection, of the dark recess and excess of alone-but-together marginalization. It is infused with the full glory of the textual froth and ludic liberty that frustrates poets and readers alike. It draws on imagery both unhip and with-it. It is a mash-up less of two irreconcilable and ultimately vain isms than of a bicultural locus situated in between desert and forest, land and water, sacred and taboo, me and you. Mirrored ad infinitum. It plunges you in the very heart of unknowing, but beneath a veil of sure-footed, committed literary conviction. It reveals no salvational warrior, but troves of insecure wanderers. No class, but armies of the casteless. It is a digressive exercise in style.
How to snap and blow.
1. Abdelkébir Khatibi, Amour bilingue (1983), in Œuvres de Abdelkébir Khatibi, I : romans et récits (Paris: La Différence, 2008), 281; Love in Two Languages, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 115.
4. Though poetry has never been at the forefront of Khatibi criticism, there are two standout exceptions: Hédi Abdel-Jaouad, “Ero-Esotericism in Khatibi’s Le Lutteur de classe à la manière taoïste and Dédicace à l’année qui vient,” Revue Celfan/Celfan Review 8, no. 1–2 (November 1988): 23–27; and Laurent Dubreuil, “Poétique de l’énallage,” Abdelkebir Khatibi, intersigne, ed. David Fieni and Laurent Dubreuil, special issue, Expressions maghrébines 12, no. 1 (Summer 2013): 57–71. Appearing some ten years after Le Lutteur de classe à la manière taoïste, Dédicace à l’année qui vient (Fata Morgana, 1986) was Khatibi’s second book of poetry, and the first installment of what later became Aimance.
5. On the spelling of “francoarab,” see yasser elhariry, “Hyphens & hymens: francoarab literature of the Maghreb,” in A Companion to African Literatures, edited by Olakunle George, Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming.
6. See The Maghreb After Colonialism, ed. Olivia C. Harrison, special issue of b2o 3, no. 4 (December 2018).
7. Christopher Miller, “Francophonie and Independence,” A New History of French Literature, ed. Denis Hollier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 1028. In addition to foreignizing French, a penchant for fictionalized autobiographical texts characterized a string of Maghrebi novels that drew thinly veiled allusions to the interstices occupied by the authors, their protagonists, and their sociopolitical milieu. Driss Chraïbi’s Le Passé simple [The Simple Past] (Denoël, 1954) remains paradigmatic in this regard: Chraïbi’s protagonist is named Driss, and the novel closes with Driss’s flight from Morocco to France, tropes that persist half a decade later in Abdellah Taïa’s L’Armée du Salut [Salvation Army] (Seuil, 2006). The ploys of Le Passé simple’s elevated metatextual conceits paved the way for later genre-bending works such as Khatibi’s La Mémoire tatouée, Abdelwahab Meddeb’s Talismano (Bourgois, 1978), Khatibi’s Amour bilingue (Fata Morgana, 1983), and Habib Tengour’s L’Épreuve de l’arc : séances, 1982–1989 (Sindbad, 1990).
10. See Edmond Jabès, Du désert au livre : entretiens avec Marcel Cohen (Paris: Belfond, 1980), 70–71; From the Desert to the Book, trans. Pierre Joris (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1990), 43–44.
12. Labīd Ibn Rabīʿa, “Muʿallaqa,” in A. J. Arberry, The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature (London: Macmillan, 1957), 142. See Khatibi’s analysis of Maghrebi tattoos in “Tatouage: écriture en points,” in La Blessure du nom propre (Paris: Denoël, 1974).
13. On the importance of the figure of the orphan to Khatibi’s poetics, see Matt Reeck, “Poetics of the Orphan in Abdelkébir Khatibi’s Early Work,” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy/Revue de la philosophie française et de langue française 25, no. 1: 132–49.
17. David Fieni, “Review of Abdelkébir Khatibi’s ‘Class Warrior — Taoist Style,’” b2o, (September 2018).
18. Class Warrior should be read as an innovative inheritor of the manifesto as genre; for more on which see Manifesto: A Century of Isms, ed. Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln, NE: Nebraska University Press, 2001).
35. George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous,” in New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2008), 166.
36. Twenty-one years later, 2019 marked the ten-year anniversary of Khatibi’s death, and as is custom with literary anniversaries of every stripe, the year opened with a bombastic flurry of furious activity and interest around Khatibi, including an English translation of one of his most influential works (Plural Maghreb: Writings on Postcolonialism, trans. P. Burcu Yalim [London: Bloomsbury, 2019], originally published as Maghreb pluriel [Paris: Denoël, 1983]) and a major Moroccan colloque itinérant in El Jadida, Rabat, and Kénitra.