ART: The Agonist and the Ecstasy
50 Drawings to Murder Magic,
translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Seagull Books, 2008
“I suffer from a frightful disease of the mind,” declared Antonin Artaud in 1923, referring in the same letter to his poems as “the shreds that I have managed to snatch from complete nothingness.” Twenty-five years later, having endured psychological breakdowns, incarceration, and electroshock treatments, Artaud wrote a brief poetic statement intended to introduce a selection from the notebooks he had composed following his release from the Rodez asylum in 1946. This handsomely-produced book reproduces this handwritten valedictory text. It is translated with characteristic force and precision by Donald Nicholson-Smith) (along with, perplexingly, 53 drawings instead of the listed 50), using a front and back cover resembling the format of the student exercise books into which Artaud shone what he called the “flickering light” of his drawings. With an apparently serene lucidity through which the reader can still perceive lingering lightning flashes and rumbles of thunder from the storm of prophecies, blasphemies, shrieks, and glossolalia of his banned radio play, To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Artaud surveys these final visual-poetic statements and declares them to “have nothing to say / and represent / absolutely nothing.” Having begun his creative project by wresting fragments from the void, Artaud—following a prolonged descent into a private hell in which he agonizingly and agonistically absorbed, in order to exorcise, the horrors into which Western “civilization” had plunged the world—now proudly asserts the nothingness of his last thoughts before the end.
However, to take Artaud’s words at face value would reduce them to mere nihilism. After all, words, sounds, and drawings are for him fundamentally corporeal emanations that do not exist as objectified entities to be analyzed and dissected. As the book’s title indicates, the purpose of the drawings is “to murder magic.” Artaud’s rejection of “saying” and “representation” points towards a method of reading that is necessarily total, where words do not merely represent or say but become active forces, talismanic weapons in his summoning of “surrounding spaces / to arise / and speak.” The challenge is thus to the reader—inadequate term for the “you” whose active presence Artaud demands—to “leave the written page / and enter / the real / but also / …leave the real / and enter / the surreal / … / into which these drawings / continually / plunge / because they come from there”. The apparently straightforward, exclusively textual presentation of the introductory poem, written in pen as opposed to the drawings in pencil, is marred/enhanced by constellations of puncture marks. The page becomes a mutilated body gouged in search of a space beneath that can allow new forces “…like bodies of / new / sensibility” to emerge from the page’s depths.
The question poses itself: if these notations are “magical first / and foremost,” and move “[f]rom imprecation / to imprecation,” then Artaud’s murderous intent is not directed against magic per se but a specific kind of magic—the malefic world system that engendered cataclysmic wars and, through the newly-fabricated atomic bomb, the specter of planetary annihilation. Against these forces, Artaud’s drawings (superbly reproduced here in a way no computer image could possibly duplicate) deploy knife-like forms, distorted faces, limbs, ovaries, racks, nails, swirling around, through, and underneath the texts, themselves conveyed in a range of handwritings and pencil thicknesses. In his introductory poem, Artaud alludes to atomic power, comparing it to breath and breath to a “wall of lava / on the march towards / the imminent overthrow / of the immediate future.” What may be involved here is a countervailing power to the bomb whose incantations are pronounced in the interests of “a wondrous object / or a world / to create, to call forth.” This is borne out by Artaud’s last written words, which abjure alchemy in the name of our being “no longer in chemistry / but in nature / and I do believe / that / nature / is about to speak.” Living as we are in an era of global warming and ongoing planetary devastation, we are in a position not only to measure the scope of Artaud’s prophecy, but finally to begin to let nature speak through us.
The publication of this book in an English version is clearly of great importance. Unfortunately, the publishers have not furnished translations of the texts in the drawings, a decision that shows little respect for Artaud’s English-speaking readers, who will not be able to grasp the precise extent to which his “writing / is at the forefront / of vision”. Also, although the “note on sources” at the back of the book proclaims that “[t]he facsimiles of the exercise books are to the scale of the original,” several pages are reproduced in considerably reduced size: another disservice that no amount of rationalization on economic grounds can justify. But until the time in which the contents of all Artaud’s final notebooks can appear in English, the present version of 50 Drawings to Murder Magic is the best we can expect.
CHRIS WINKS is the author of Symbolic Cities in Caribbean Literature.