Library Love

Paul B. Preciado
23.09.2019
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At Passa Porta and Beursschouwburg's request, Paul B. Preciado wrote a new text on the subject of love. Obviously, books play a starring role.

Every year when September begins, a cosmic and benevolent hand mutes the sun and pushes a wave of cold wind from the northern fjords that sooner or later hits the city and carries away at least a small part of the air that chokes us. September is a good month, it is the time when new books, like puppies born at the beginning of the summer, come out for the first time to play in the public square, with their soft pads and their bright backs. Bookstores fill up with these unknown bodies. Some manage to enter into some houses, to be part of a library, to lie on bedside tables, and even to get into foreign beds. Books, like viruses, are intermediate entities between the object and the living being.

A library is a material biography, written in the words of others, made up of the accumulation and order of the different books that someone has read in their lifetime. In addition, and although this may seem paradoxical or unpleasant to those professionally engaged in writing — but it is good news for booksellers —, to build a library as a biography one should count those books owned without having been read, those that rest on shelves or wait on tables but have never been opened or looked at, either entirely or partially. In a biography, unread books are indicators of frustrated desires, fleeting wishes, broken friendships, unsatisfied vocations, secret depressions that hide behind the appearance of overwork or lack of time. They are sometimes masks that the false reader wears to emit literary signals aimed at triggering the sympathy or complicity of other readers. At other times, as on an Instagram page, only the cover, the author's name or even the title of a book count. The unread books are a capsule which contains unrealized futures, concentrated piece of times, indicating a direction that life could have taken but did not … or that it might still take.

Every relationship has its Bible

Each love affair leaves behind a bibliography, like a trace or a heritage where the books that each lover has brought to the other are listed. In the same way, we could say that each relationship has its Bible, its sacred book, the book that would allow to tell the story of love or of the misfortune of love.

The intensity and degree of realization of a love can be measured by the impact that the relationship has had on our personal library. A one-night stand or a quick story can create a longer or more interesting bibliography than a relationship that has lasted for years. Aisha, for example, let me know that she wanted me by offering me Amin Maalouf's The First Century After Beatrice precisely when I was about to change my name, as if the century Maalouf was talking about would start at that very moment. Our love story was short, but her bibliography was dense: she left me all her books by Mahmoud Darwish, some in English, others in French, which in themselves constitute a Palestine library, as impossible as our love.

I also remember the library of Diedre, a BDSM lover I had in New York. We only met for contractually agreed sessions, but as she was doing a doctoral dissertation on Hegel, I ended up reading, paragraph by paragraph, the entire Phenomenology of the Spirit. I still keep in my library her underlined and commented copy in German that, without her, I will never be able to read again.

Pierre Guyotat in the fridge

One of the most terrible relationships of my life, the one I established with Jean for a few months, added to my library the now invaluable work of Pierre Guyotat. I wonder if the most violent and threatening parts of Eden Eden Eden, which Jean worshipped, were not already the passionate protocol shaping the form that Jean's obsession, his thirst for possession and his anger against me would take in the future. The rest of Guyotat's books are still on my shelves and often accompany me on my travels, but the version of Eden Eden Eden that Jean had given me remained for years in a freezer in Paris, as prescribed by a witch who had treated me against his attacks. When I moved from one apartment to another, I left it there. Maybe the next tenant thought I was eating books kept at a low temperature. I would never know if it has been unfrozen since then, to be read or simply thrown away when the fridge was cleaned, or if that Eden Eden Eden is still cold.

Some relationships leave behind a single frozen book, which we will never be able to read again. Others manage to found a whole new library. With Virginie, the lover with whom I lived the longest, we came to form a library of more than five thousand copies, putting together our books and adding new ones every day. Although it has been more than four years since we separated as a romantic couple (according to the bourgeois and patriarchal conventions that still govern what is socially understood as a couple), we have never been able to separate our books. Virginie and I came from two different worlds, or to be more precise, we had two radically heterogeneous libraries before we fell in love with each other. Her library was composed of a thousand books on music culture and punk rock, many in English, mixed with a good collection of American literature and a sharp selection of crime novels in French. Mine had been formed by the academic institutions of three different countries, from the Jesuits to the New School for Social Research to Princeton to the École d'Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. It was a rather boring and studious library, in three languages, which brought together Greek and Latin classics, the history of architecture and technology, as well as French philosophy, and where only about five hundred titles of feminism, queer and anti-colonial theory quavered the canonical peace of Western thought.

Our love first led to the exchange of a few books between our respective libraries. It may have started with the migration of Monique Wittig's Le Corps lesbien from my library to find in hers an ideal place between Albertine Sarrazin and Goliarda Sapienza. Then there was the smuggling of her Ellroy and her Calaferte, which sharpened their pages to open a space in my library between Hobbes and Leibniz. Then there was the glorious meeting of her Lydia Lunch with my Valerie Solanas. Her Baldwin traveled from her library to find a place next to Angela Davis and bell hooks in mine. It was as if the political boundaries established by each library fell before the charming power of the other's books.

Mutual insemination

Then, when we moved in together, the libraries merged. This was the time of the reorganization of all the series, the rupture of the canon, the disruption of the repertoire, the perversion of the alphabet. Derrida sounded better between Philippe Garnier and Laurent Chalumeau. Later, the metamorphosis took place: our common library began to grow with new titles from mutual insemination. Whole shelves appeared of Pasolini and Joan Didion, June Jordan and Claudia Rankine, Susan Sontag and Elfriede Jelinek. When Virginie learned to speak Spanish, dozens of Roberto Bolaño, Osvaldo Laborghini, Pedro Lemebel, Diamela Eltit and Juan Villoro appeared as new organs. The library became a monster in front of which we could spend hours playing like children, adding an Achille Mbembé here and an Emma Goldman there, looking at the mutant anatomy of this fictional body. The common library was alive and growing with us.

The almost sexual reproduction of our libraries made it impossible to separate our books when we decided to break up and I moved to Athens. This was proof that our library was much stronger than our couple. Our love was a library love. Neither because it corresponded to a book narrative, nor because its quality was more fictional than real, but because it united our books more durably and definitively than our bodies. Even today our library is still alive and mutating.

In other cases, the problems of love are library problems from the beginning. For example, in my relationship with Alison, her resistance to love was immediately manifested by her reluctance to let me freely use her library. Alison had a bipolar library. On the one hand, a classic and serious library, made of scrupulous choices. Built during her years of study and through the legacy of her parents, both writers, this library contained no books published after 1985. The second hemisphere of the bipolar library, on the other hand, consisted of a set of the most heterogeneous and unequal titles of poetry, theatre, architecture, short stories and essays, in Spanish and Catalan, all published after 1985 and mostly given to her by the authors themselves, often in exchange for bookstore presentations which Alison gladly accepted to do for them, friendly meetings sprinkled with Priorat wine and accompanied by fuet tapas.

Nothing made me happier when arriving at Alison's house after a long trip from Athens or New York than to lie in her bed and wait for her by reading at random one of those books published before 1985. That's how I reread Spinoza's Ethics, Gilles Deleuze's book on Foucault, Nietzsche's Zarathustra or the first Spanish translation of Moby Dick. In Barcelona's culturally dull and politically hostile context, these books were like a bunch of loyal friends always ready to take a walk with me. They accompanied me to the beach, got lost in my backpacks and often ended up full of sand on the shelves of the toilets or kitchen. Alison argued that I was screwing up her library. And the systematic production of this disorder was the fundamental activity to which I devoted myself, in addition to making love to her, during my travels to visit her. I regret, in equal parts, those Sunday afternoons between two trips, when Alison reordered my body and messed up her library. That sums up what I mean by free time: sex and reading. Love and writing. No tennis, no golf, no tourism.

Can we love without embracing each other's library?

Our library differences became apparent when she gifted me a book by Michel Onfray for Christmas. This triggered what could be called in technical language a bibliographic conflict. Perhaps because she had never read all the books I had written, she hadn't understood that Michel Onfray was as far from my library as Karl Ove Knausgard from Chiamanda Ngozi's or Philip Roth from Maggie Nelson's. I didn't say anything. We didn't talk about it. She tried to fix what had been done. One day, Alison gave me a beautifully illustrated version of Dale Pendell's Pharmako Gnosis. But in general, the situation could be described this way: I loved her library, but she wasn't interested in mine. I asked myself the question: can anyone love a writer, I mean here the person, the writer's body, in other words the reader, without reading her, him or their books? Can someone love someone without knowing and embracing her, his or their library?

As I was writing these lines, I realized that I still had on my desk the last book she had offered me on April 23rd, Esta bruma insensata, This Nonsensical Mist, by Enrique Vila-Matas. April 23rd is perhaps the most beautiful day of the year in Barcelona. The city celebrates the national book festival and all bookstores, large and small, take their tables out into the street with the best-sellers that save their businesses, but also with the unsellable books and totally unknown collections from publishing houses in commercial bankruptcy. On the first page of This Nonsensical Mist is the dedication that Alison had written to me: "On this day of books where there is also yours and where Barcelona and I are happy to accompany you. I love you, Alison." I am struck by her works, not only by the "I love you", which I now find lacerating, but by the union with the twenty-sixth letter of the Castilian alphabet and the twenty-first letter of its consonants, by a Greek "y", between the words "Barcelona" and "I" as if Alison considered herself a city, or, on the contrary, as if by considering Barcelona as a person, she were establishing a secret alliance between them. Did that mean that if she stopped accompanying me or loving me, the city would do the same? I now know that there was something premonitory about this dedication. I started reading this book when we were together. When I finished it, we were already separated.

on bibliographic independence and library unionism

This Senseless Mist could well be the black book of our love. In this novel, Simon Schneider, the narrator, brother of a great writer for whom he collects quotes from other authors, refers to “the senseless mist” to name the dense cloud of political confusion that the pro-independence Catalanist and the Spanish unionist movements have created in recent years and which absurd fog seems to hang low over the city of Barcelona. There were certain things that, for Simon, had what he called with the art historian Souriau a "minor existence", an existence similar to that of a mist, fog or breeze. In the case of our love, the mist could name the confusion that Alison's bibliographic independence and my library unionism had created and that floated over our relationship, until the library of our love was, so to speak, fully into the fog.

One day, almost at the end of our relationship, during a conversation, I asked her about a yeast box called El Tigre that was on her table, and on which once could read "para la bollería fina", for fine pastry.

- What do you care about this box?" she asked.

- Well, the person who gave it to you wanted to make a joke about the fact that you look like a dyke although you have always said you are straight. It's for your fine pastry, "para la bollería fina" I said laughing — because in Spanish, lesbians are called "pastry makers".

- Look, Paul, she told me, cold and derogatory, the world is not a Counter-sexual Manifesto, referring to my first book that she never read in its entirety and that she had never spoken to me about before, I think.

What I imagined to be a joke became the settling of scores of two librarians. It is as if she had taken the book itself and thrown it in my face, as if with these words she had destroyed my fragile library. I knew then, as I could have known the first time she blamed me for messing up her books, that we could never have a common library. A few days later, I made a dozen packages with the books I had accumulated in her house during my travels and I left without her asking me to stay. Since then, we have never spoken again, we have never seen each other again.

Periods of depression or profound disaffection are those in which the library simply becomes a piece of furniture and books simply objects. We then perceive them as geometric forms and bulky volumes that adorn a wall, that separate us from the outside world, that bother us or overfill our houses. We measure them in cubic centimeters, we weigh them in kilograms. We no longer perceive them as paper doors that lead to parallel worlds. But one day love will return: we will know it has come when the library turns into a virus again.

Paris, September 17th, 2019
Paul B. Preciado
23.09.2019