Madness, melodrama, mundanity, and the legacy of Antonin Artaud.
For those susceptible to the romance of madness, the essential sanity of the written word is a tragedy. Perhaps literature is not the only art to suffer from the rationality that form and meanings impose, but it does seem at a peculiar disadvantage, even when it comes to the works of those practitioners who were themselves inarguably mad. The violently colored, claustrophobically dense drawings of the psychotic Adolf Wölfli satisfy with an intense frisson of delirium; the schizophrenic August Natterer’s elusively symbolic, eerily cartoonish images are unsettling in the extreme. But Robert Walser’s microscripts, creepy though they may be to behold, are, once deciphered, all too legible. Gérard de Nerval’s Aurelia, while it may chronicle his descent into lunacy, does so in limpid prose, unfolding its narrative in a calm and eminently parseable progression. The fiction Philip K. Dick generated from his transcendental visions is, if anything, more clichéd than the brain-bending stories that arose during his slightly less hallucinatory earlier years. Maybe literature, the reading of which involves deciphering a series of symbolic equations, simply cannot escape an intrinsically argumentative, demonstrative quality. Maybe, because literary works operate, no matter how conventional or how revolutionary the text, through the suspension of readerly disbelief, it’s tautologically impossible to regard them as delusional. Maybe literature’s mundanity is one more evil ascribable to the crime syndicate of literary criticism: There’s no idea, no form, no mode of language too extreme or sublime to escape the shackles of a meaningful analytical framework. Or maybe one must simply give way to the heartbreaking truth that battiness is banal—no more, no less. The crazy are as bourgeois, as irremediably earthbound as the rest of us. They cannot take us aloft with them; they’re even deeper in the mire than we are.
If anyone was ever truly deranged, it was the French playwright, poet, theorist, and opiate addict Antonin Artaud. If anyone had a chance at translating psychopathy into poetry, it was him. Born in 1896, Artaud suffered in childhood from stammering, headaches, meningitis, and other painful physical illnesses; by the time he was a teenager, he had already spent time in sanatoriums; and in 1937, he entered a period of institutionalization that lasted until his death in 1948. He believed he was Christ—also Antichrist. Wrenchingly repulsed by sex, he would spit at pregnant women when they crossed his path. Artaud knew himself to be the victim of numerous bewitchments by an international cabal of black magicians, and was horrified by the fact that his near and dear were being murdered and replaced by indistinguishable doubles. He was also a maniacally prolific writer now best known for his formulation of the theater of cruelty and for poems and other texts that incorporate glossolalia and nonverbal noise—particularly the scream.
For those who have not yet given up on the redemptive contagion of insanity through language, Artaud’s preoccupations do sound promising. As he writes in The Theater and Its Double, “If there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” His theater of cruelty is a plague, a virus, “a crisis which is resolved by death or cure,” a theater that claims to forsake Western theatrical conventions, such as dialogue, in favor of an alchemical production of wordless pantomime, in which the staging makes asemantic hieroglyphs of actors’ bodies, and audiences are surrounded by an overwhelming magic of light, noise, movement, and sensory brutality.
So far, so good! And yet, and yet. As delicious and outrageous as Artaud’s metaphors and artistic objectives are throughout his manifesto on performative cruelty, he certainly finds it necessary to rely on good old-fashioned syntax and vocabulary to convey his claims. He does not go straight to enacting his beliefs directly; he dallies with forms in order to express his disgust at the dalliance. His treatise discourses brilliantly on discrete ideas, giving us an organized list of the various elements of theatrical production and carefully explaining, albeit with rhapsodic barbarism, exactly how they ought to be treated. He even advances the comforting idea that spectators of violent scenes, such as he intends to offer, will leave the theater unable to abide “ideas of war, riot, and blatant murder”: i.e., more civilized than when they entered. He is ... pedantic.
And then there are his own scripts for this theater of cruelty: The Cenci, for example. It may be a tale of rape, incest, and murder, but its four acts are by and large as classic as they come. The tension between Artaud’s argumentative, theoretical framework for his outrageous, divine images and indictments calls to mind his own disdain, on a personal level, for the intimate and informal, despite conducting himself in a manner that can only be described as stupendously antisocial. Famously, he called almost no one tu in the friendly fashion and insisted on being addressed with the polite vous, even while he “noisily devoured food, dropping scraps all over the tablecloth, belched, spat on the floor, and before the end of the meal, got on his knees to chant,” as Sylvère Lotringer quotes in Mad Like Artaud, a composite work of critical theorizing, biographical research, and phenomenal transcribed interviews, which came out from Univocal earlier this year.
In various of Artaud’s texts, there are passages of seemingly (or intentionally) unhinged glossolalia or hysteria, to be sure. In some cases, perhaps particularly in his late fragmentations, these are indeed ecstatic, demonic, transported ravings. But often the fractured passages are informed by the explications Artaud has made elsewhere on behalf of nonlanguage; what’s more, they’re frequently hemmed around by stanzas of utterly comprehensible (if far from traditional) poetry, as in this moment from To Have Done with the Judgment of God, with its expository opening stanza and fantastically matter-of-fact closing lines surrounding the speaking in tongues:
In order to have shit,
that is, meat,
where there was only blood
and a junkyard of bones
and where there was no being to win
but where there was only life to lose.
o reche modo
do padera coco
At this point, man withdrew and fled.
Then the animals ate him.
To Have Done with the Judgment of God was created as a radio play and recorded by Artaud for French Radio in 1947. Although Artaud had insisted, prior to his studio visit, that he was not to be censored in any way—thereby giving fair warning, one would think—the recording was in fact not aired, a fact for which it’s hard to blame French Radio, with sections like “The Pursuit of Fecality,” which kicks off:
There where it smells of shit
it smells of being.
Man could just as well not have shat,
not have opened the anal pouch,
but he chose to shit
as he would have chosen to live
instead of consenting to live dead.
Because in order not to make caca,
he would have had to consent
not to be,
but he could not make up his mind to lose
that is, to die alive.
There is in being
something particularly tempting for man
and this something is none other than
Weird? Definitely. Disruptive? Certainly. But demented? Artaud lays out the cause and effect relationships quite neatly. There’s no logical slippage, no sublime fragmentation, no dizzying leap into the previously unthinkable. It’s in the follow-up interview that things get really interesting. The broadcaster protests, “You are raving, Mr. Artaud. You are mad.” Artaud answers:
I am not raving.
I am not mad.
I tell you that they have reinvented microbes in order to impose a new idea of god.
They have found a new way to bring out god and to capture him in his microbic noxiousness.
This is to nail him though the heart,
in the place where men love him best,
under the guise of unhealthy sexuality,
in that sinister appearance of morbid cruelty that he adopts whenever he is pleased to tetanize and madden humanity as he is doing now.
He utilizes the spirit of purity and of a consciousness that has remained candid like mine to asphyxiate it with all the false appearances that he spreads universally through space and this is why Artaud le Mômo can be taken for a person suffering from hallucinations.
Now, at last, we have poetry, the syntax hanging together on shredded tendons, the logic dripping into dissolution. At last, ferocity: ecstatic, vindictive, and off its leash. Here is Artaud accomplishing his stated desire: “If I hammer in a violent word like a nail, I want it to suppurate in the sentence like a wound with a hundred perforations” (quoted by Ronald Hayman in Artaud and After, Oxford UP, 1977). Here is Artaud gorgeously, venomously, masterfully losing it. Here, one rejoices, is not the Artaud of the dogmatic manifesto; not the Artaud of the structurally and syntactically cohesive if lexically and thematically savage poems; not the Artaud who wrote literature—but Artaud inscribed outside the literary, Artaud transcribed, Artaud voiced or scribbled in frantic, spontaneous language.
But is it? Artaud, in defending his sanity, seems to go truly off the rails. However, the interview is—it turns out—yet another artifact of Artaud’s own creation. It’s all part of the plan. The excruciating madness that overwhelmed Artaud for so long is one more instrument of the devious cruelty with which he is willing to overwhelm, trick, pervert, or batter his readers and listeners toward a new and vital apprehension of art. As he said (in “Here Where Others”), “I can’t conceive of a work detached from life,” more or less confirming that he enacted, edited, mastered, exploited, and played on his insanity throughout his work, if not (one presumes) in his actual quotidian existence.
Without going quite so far as to speculate that Artaud’s decade of starvation and electroshock in insane asylums was a deliberate theatrical performance, Lotringer does note that “we forget that Artaud was an actor and especially an actor of himself ... The problem with Artaud is that we never know what’s part of the work and what isn’t.” And in Artaud and After, Hayman recalls Artaud’s acolyte Jacques Marie Prevel describing how “Artaud was yelling out furiously against evil spirits when he stopped to hurl himself at a drawing on the wall. Across the chest of the figure he drew flames. ‘It’s becoming something,’” he said. The 1994 documentary Artaud: The True Story of Artaud Le Momo contains a similar anecdote that questions the boundaries between Artaud’s sickness and his artistry, this one about a large block of wood Artaud kept in his room, which he would bang for hours with a hammer (or in some accounts, strike with a knife or with a poker twisted into the shape of a serpent). It was an act of violence, indubitably a dangerous and explosive outburst of mania—but it apparently was also an exercise in control that enabled Artaud to train his breath for the demanding vocalizations of his linguistic performances.
Artaud writes, in a 1947 letter to André Breton (translated by Peter Valente and Cole Heinowitz in Selected Late Letters of Antonin Artaud, 1945–1947, Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2014):
On my stomach and under my testicles, armies of succubi and incubi who are live men, very much alive, taken from all nations, and all races of the earth ... spend their nights sinking their tongues, their lips, their uvulas, their glottises, their clitorises, into my organs.
Is he plaintively and helplessly iterating the obsession that never relaxed its grip on him? Or is he using the succubi and incubi that made use of him, feeding on them as they fed on him, turning the tables? Impossible to know, but our suspicions are heightened by his 1924 correspondence with Jacques Rivière, editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française (see Bernard Frechtman’s translations in Artaud Anthology, edited by Jack Hirschman, City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA, 1963). Having refused to publish Artaud’s poems, Rivière offered instead to run the letters he and Artaud had exchanged, using invented names. Artaud replied:
Why lie, why try to place on the literary level a thing which is the very cry of life? Why give an appearance of fiction to what is made up of the ineradicable substance of the soul, to what is the wail of reality? Yes, your idea pleases me, it gladdens me, it gratifies me. But on condition that it give whoever reads us the impression that he is not being presented with something that that has been fabricated. We have the right to lie, but not about the essence of the matter.
Lotringer enjoys playing with the idea that Artaud’s “‘delirium’ was merely an extension of his poetic vision.” Indeed, he enjoys testing the water of a number of recreational theories, including the appallingly appealing idea that it’s difficult to blame Artaud’s psychologist (cum torturer) Gaston Ferdière for brutalizing Artaud with a protracted course of electroshock treatment, given Artaud’s insistence, in The Theater and Its Double, that the job of the theater was nothing if not to awaken and heal people with painful shocks applied against their will:
Cure through shock was invented by Artaud himself in the theatre even before the technique was imported from Roman slaughterhouses and applied to the mentally ill a few years before the war. But he had invented it for culture as a whole. And it’s kind of ironic that it was Artaud who ended up paying the price.
Lotringer’s book is not only rich in unrestrained flights of analytical fancy like this one—it’s also wonderful in its spite. The interviews are spectacularly confrontational, and Lotringer has no qualms about trash talking. For while Artaud’s madness is complicated in one sense with regard to the mundanity (relatively speaking) of much of his published writing, a second Artaudian mundanity (and insanity) occurs—and occurs constantly, viciously, and enjoyably—in the theater of gossip. In an interview, Lotringer and Paule Thévenin, Artaud’s editor, tell it like it is:
SL Did you ever meet this Latrémolière?
PT No, I never saw him. And he said I was a schemer or something. ... Everyone who deals with Artaud is paranoid ... All the characters ... were absolutely psychopathic. The psychiatrists, too. ... It was a total film noir. ... It’s this attitude people adopt when it comes to Artaud ...
SL Latrémolière sent me insulting letters. Ferdière, on the other hand, was extremely friendly. He’s no less paranoid, necessarily.
PT He’s mad, he’s mad ...
SL Basically, they’re all mad, Artaud’s madmen.
If Artaud’s manifestos, chants, and delusions failed, by and large, to replicate themselves in those around him and those who followed, his animosities, his grudges, and his petty vengeances most certainly took hold. Oh, the accusations! In Lotringer’s book, in Artaud’s letters, and perhaps most fabulously in the film Artaud Le Momo, the recriminations and insinuations fly. Artaud rages against “the sorcerer” Ferdière, alleges various credulity-straining thefts of his money and possessions, and kvetches about the infrequency of his friend Anie Besnard’s letters and asylum visits (imputing, of course, that she has been replaced by a less attentive double). Jany de Ruy is accused of smuggling drugs to Artaud; in turn, she accuses Artaud of driving his angel Colette Thomas, the actress and author, mad. Artaud’s sister accuses Thévenin of stealing Artaud’s manuscripts, Ferdière accuses Thévenin of writing Artaud’s work for him, Thévenin accuses “bottom feeders” left and right. Ferdière is forced to sue the Lettrists, a school of Artaud’s followers, for their harassment of him, “with those bastards calling me every night at midnight or five in the morning to insult me.” Henri Thomas accuses Artaud of brainwashing Prevel into a semicomatose state of mindless discipleship. It’s a sewing circle of sharpened needles and elaborate embroidery, a veritable soap opera of jealous invective and backstabbing.
Drama, drama, drama! It may not be the theater of cruelty Artaud had in mind, but it’s a testament to the persistence of his legend, to the force of his legacy, to the potency of the virus he incubated in his own mind, then released. All the scandal, with its malicious calumny, is farcical and hugely gripping, even for those with only a casual interest in Artaud. Or perhaps mainly for those with a casual interest. For many Artaudian zealots, of course, Artaud’s oeuvre proper, from the essays to the poems to the scripts to the drawings, performances, journals, and letters, will always be the fullest and most honorable manifestation of his genius. As is only right. After all, in a sense, these works of structured aberrance, of theorized frenzy, are perfect representations of the Artaudian dilemma—like the man himself, they are spurts and spittings and flashes of lunacy painfully constrained within a prison of institutionalized logic and form.
Micaela Morrissette is the managing editor of Conjunctions.