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.
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