I can never say all that I owe to Samuel

The author, philosopher, university lecturer and LGBT activist Guy Hocquenghem tells of childhood experiences with his teacher that have influenced his entire life.

Source: L’Amphithéâtre des Morts: Mémoires Anticipées (French: Amphitheater of the Dead: Advance Memoir), by Guy Hocquenghem, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1994

That clear September morning, as fine a day as the whole decade of the sixties, a lanky teenager in too-short polyester pants passed through the heavy doors of Henri IV High School.

It was not without worry that he walked along the corridors. He fingered mechanically, in his jacket pocket, a letter of recommendation. A new high school and this strange idea of “philosophy,” the name of the class he was starting, which heralded great changes in his life.

This curly-haired child, it’s me; that memory has split into two, ten, a hundred images coming back to me.

I could have, I should have, never met Samuel. The letter — my parents strongly believed in academic recommendations — was addressed to Prof. Levy. But I had been placed in the class of Prof. Samuel, who was this little man in a striped velvet suit standing in front of me.

I must have looked both poor and noble, badly dressed in my brothers’ clothes, too skinny, and yet I have seen in my pictures (all burned in the end, in the fire at the Mill) an incredible, exceptional beauty. Samuel didn’t think twice and included me in his class without taking into account that the recommendation was addressed to a colleague.

Poor Samuel had to overcome in me, in my first essays, such naïveté, such stupid, idiotic innocence, that he very nearly failed. Finally, in December, he invited me to dinner.

Samuel has been the same all his life. From the age of 20 to the 95 he is today, he has looked so much the same that his pictures seem to be from different hours of the day, not different stages of life.

I can never say all that I owe to Samuel. He cleansed me, morally, physically, intellectually.

When I entered this classroom — iron-gray walls, pale green ceiling, tall windows overlooking the courtyard — Samuel was on the platform. He read my letter without blinking. Then, turning to me, who had one foot on the platform and the other on the ground, he said in his strange Alsatian accent:

“I’m very pleased to meet you. Sit where you like.”

Samuel, although well-built and well-groomed (he epilated his shoulders and dyed his hair), gave more the impression, physically, of a tanned peasant than an intellectual. At that time, I was rather disappointed; I imagined all philosophers with glasses and white hair.

Samuel taught me everything, sex and politics, at a time when those were the only deep concerns. Even today, at the beginning of the second millennium, one may be shocked that my teacher slept with me. The room at the Grands Hommes Hotel was tiny, but with an alcohol-burning kitchen stove at the entryway. Samuel was on good terms with the Czech and Portuguese maids, who would sew on his buttons, and he lived there a life (he was approaching 50) of a comfortable old boy living at the hotel.

Samuel is actually typical of the intelligentsia of that time! It’s not just him, his little stocky figure, his slightly asymmetrical face; it’s the taste of single-serving quiches reheated on a hotplate that awakens in my mouth. A bachelor’s life, which I became part of.

His raw wool blankets scratched me a little. The first time, I went back to Sceaux on the subway and I kept thinking, “If people around me knew …” Knew that I just made love with a man. How would they have reacted, these stupefied housewives with the stare of a melancholic cow, these little businessmen in their lousy suits, these students with glasses …

And the feeling of my unity suddenly revealed itself, expanding my mind, overwhelming the space of the small, smelly compartment where we were all shaken by the motion of the train.

What this experience taught me above all was the crazy, unlimited appeal of the Double Life. I have never ceased living on two levels. Homosexual on one side, activist on the other, and later writer and invalid, I have always had something to hide in half of my dealings. I love this; it is a greater richness.

The time of getting it together, it was the miraculous moment of “sexual liberation”. But even when I was a homosexual activist, a part of my life, that of erotic frenzy, remained shadowed. And this was the right way; one must always keep some reserve. Full authenticity (doing what you say and saying what you do) is a totalitarian’s dream.