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Cruel Theater

Stephen Barber
Antonin Artaud: Terminal Curses: The Notebooks, 1945-48
(Solar Lit Directives, 2008)

Many of us know Antonin Artaud first from his face. Those high cheekbones, that deeply serious stance and gesture, holding up the Bible to the Joan played by the very great Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc at the Stake as she is about to be burned. That encounter with the flames we might see as lasting beyond his performance.

Then we read the extraordinary early writings, with their mesmerizing repetitions about how the mind is not working, how paralysis strikes mentally and psychologically everywhere. Here is the issue: Artaud’s work is generally unassimilable. We can’t use what we read, we can’t appropriate his madness, we can only admire his daring, like André Breton exclaiming that Artaud never used a guardrail over the abyss: “If only one could taste one’s void.” If anyone could make you taste it, he could.

His death mask reminds me of that of Blaise Pascal, as does so much else: that haunting by the abyss; that belief that sin was to be equated with the sexual act; that in fact “all writing is garbage;” that what went on with thinking was what alone counted; and the sacred status of the memorial witness as testimony to a spell cast, recounted, and treasured even as it was operated upon, kept, displayed or kept secret, in Pascal’s case, and kept from the public in Artaud’s case. But of course the witness is what the magic evolves upon.

About the secrecy: Everywhere in Artaud’s writing, gaps: in the website devoted to him, in the realms of pain and darkness, in the language of the actor and creator, before even his working into another language, that of himself as actor: “Artaud-le-Momo”…. We do not understand him always, nor does he understand himself.

“I am the man who has most felt the stupefying confusion of his speech in its relations with thought […]I am the man who knows the inmost recesses of loss.” The excessive dwelling on his own singularity, even before he began to identify himself as God, might remind us of Rousseau and other romanticizers of the self, but nothing in his styles reads like those of anyone else.

Poor Antonin Artaud! For it is indeed he, this impotent wretch who scales the stars, who tries to pit his weakness against the cardinal points of the elements, who, out of each of the subtle or solid faces of nature, tries to create a thought that will hold, an image that will stand.

This is high drama: Artaud is, was, in all his being and appearance, truly high-maintenance, for others and for himself. “I have aspired no further than the clockwork of my soul.” Well, that’s pretty far, when the soul is for him the body and the brain and the “Situation of the Flesh” under which topic we hear “the cries of a man engaged in remaking his life.” Of course he is singular, as we all are, but his singularity is his obsession:

I am the witness I am the only witness of myself.
And the gaps are in that thinking and in that self, they are between them.

Gaps everywhere, but also double readings for anyone obsessed by his being and writing. I remember my astonishment in finding in the poems and prose poems of his deeply troubling The Umbilicus of Limbo (1925), that there were other meanings hidden in the more obvious ones. Not that you could ever call anything in Artaud’s written or painted world obvious, but more would transpire after the first reading. I found fascinating his complaint that when he wanted to say two things at once, only one would come out, as if he were showing symptoms of constipation. “Nothing touches me, nothing interests me except what addresses itself directly to my flesh.” Everything related to his body, which he equated with his brain: so thinking was always felt. He has to “feel his brain” and that: “I often put myself into this state of impossible absurdity in order to try to generate thought in myself.”

The translations of Helen Weaver in Susan Sontag’s edition of Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings have the same troubling brilliance as the original, and you find yourself plunged into the excitation of this thinking, never less than intense in its detailed outpouring. Every single statement is at fevered pitch, just like that face, so powerful in all his films. From The Nerve Meter (1925), these aphorisms:

Where others present their works, I claim to do no more than show my mind.

Life consists of burning up questions […]

I would like to write a Book which would drive men mad


I often put myself into this state of impossible absurdity in order to try to generate thought in myself. There are a few of us in this era who have tried to get hold of things, to create within ourselves spaces for life, spaces which did not exist and which did not seem to belong in actual space.

From the same year, 1925, comes an intensely poetic prose about another than himself, as troubled as himself in his obsessed seeing, and about whom he wrote the equivalent of a play: Paolo Uccello. Paul the Birds, or The Place of Love:

Paolo Uccello is struggling in the middle of a vast mental web in which he has lost all the pathways of his soul, and even the form and the suspension of his reality.

Leave your tongue, Paolo Uccello, leave your tongue, my tongue, my tongue, shit, who is speaking, where are you? Beyond, beyond, Mind, Mind, fire, tongues of fire, fire, fire, eat your tongue, old dog, eat his tongue, eat, etc. I tear out my tongue.


So Uccello conceives himself in the mind of Artaud, in a “desperate wrenching” but—and this is not much of a surprise at this point—“Antonin Artaud doesn’t need problems, he’s already pissed off enough at his own thoughts”.

But more dramatic than the play and his celebrated “Theatre of Cruelty,” meaning to break through language, by gesture and thinking, to life itself—about which the poet and theoretician Maggie Nelson writes, in The Art of Cruelty: a Reckoning, that “its crackle is still audible”—is his casting of spells, to protect or destroy those to whom he addressed them. Between 1937 and 1939, in Galway and in the asylum at Ville-Evrard, he prepared these talismanic stuffs, tearing the paper he had waxed and colored, burning holes with a match, erasing the very substance of the spells by overwriting them, eradicating what had initially been clearly aimed. He speaks of this in his New Revelations of Being of 1937:

Burning is a magic act and one must consent to burning, burning in advance and immediately, not one thing, but all that for us represents things, so as not to expose oneself to burning completely. All that is not burned by all of Us and that does not make US Desperates and Loners, the Earth will burn.

It is all deliberate, invoking the powers he feels within and without him, these spells “which, after so meticulously having drawn them, I put a match to.” I am, he says, in an insane asylum, “but this dream of a Madman will become true and will be implemented by me.” As society “suicides” Van Gogh, in his impassioned belief, so Artaud can, with this “hard, compact, opaque, unrestrained” graphite pencil, work his own magic “by an antilogical, antiphilosophical, anti-intellectual, antidialectical blast of language” against the mental and physical imprisonment he suffered in the nine years he was in various asylums. Never were his drawings only drawings, they were always “documents. You must look at them and understand, ” he cautions us, and these things are things beyond drawing and documenting. The totemic means go far past his pencil, which he jabbed repeatedly in paper and in his flesh:

Like magic I take my thick breath, and by means of my nose, my mouth, my hands, and my two feet I project it against everything that might bother me.

And how many are there in the air now, boxes cases, totems, gris-gris, walls, surfaces, sticks, nails, rope and hundreds of nails, breastplates, helmets, amour, masks, carders, iron collars … …gallows, and dials, projected by my will.

In 1946, he was released from Rodez by Dr. Ferdière and given a room in a separate pavilion at Ivry-sur-Seine, near Paris, where he prepared a series of notebooks, standing at a table, shouting aloud, jabbing knives and his pencil into the pages: these are the ones annotated and illustrated in a remarkable book by Stephen Barber.

They are already on the brink of self-apocalypse, stabbed and slashed with knives, jabbed with his graphite pencil, stained with urine, pounded with hammers, and overwritten in every possible way. The weapons, such as the knife, appear in the drawings, with which he “constellates” all of his notebooks.

“Livid and alive” says Stephen Barber of these notebooks Artaud kept between 1945 and 1948, full of “exacerbation and extremity.” Artaud’s work “is always driven by its movement into apocalypse” and with them, Artaud himself moving towards an apocalyptic meltdown and the world around him, implicated in his spells—of which there is one addressed to Hitler. So the internet and its Creator seem to call for an “apocalyptic erasure…”.

One of the glories of Barber’s dramatic writing—a perfect match for the drama of the excoriating spells, with their own erasures and scratchings—over and holes burned into the parchment—is its mesmerizingly repetitive incantatory listings, and they bear violent witness to the summoning of the apocalypse, as he did repeatedly in his journeys through France, Italy, Germany, Algeria, Cuba, Mexico, Belgium, and Ireland between 1924 and 1948, the year of his death. It was on the island of Inishmore in Ireland in 1937 that he awaited its coming , and the pronouncement of his demands appear in his 50 Drawings to Assassinate Magic, and his projected radio broadcast banned in November of 1947 and not broadcast until, Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu [To Finish with the Judgment of God]:

I demand the restitution of all of the objects which have been stolen from me:
my cane,
a ton of heroin
and the organ which, for me, replaced the stomach
the organ which the stomach has replaced in me…
The general historic apocalypse has begun.

The drawings were to bring on the end of the world. But the notebooks were not published in the Collected Works, edited by the heroic Paule Thévenin (whose name does not appear, thanks to the family.) They have been concealed, and so far the apocalypse has not come.

Artaud’s own maltreatment in the various asylums, including the fifty-three shock treatments which broke his vertebral system, is reflected not only in the woundings and scarifications of the spells, but even in the eleven incisions into the back of the notebook for his text of January 31, 1948, dealing with the conflict between image and language. “Gestural erasure,” Barber calls it, comparing it with the burnings of the pages of the spells of 1937–39, sealing the spells with fire, as he says. The envelopes had finally to be torn open, correlative with the performances of the Vienna Action Group of the 1950s and ’60s and the Japanese Gutai Group—destruction was the point. Bonfires reduced the artwork, as Artaud had reduced his own spells.

The notebooks were preparing for the unforgettable performance on the 13th of January 1947 at the theatre of the Vieux Colombier in Paris, called “Tête à Tête par Antonin Artaud,” during which he dropped or, depending on the witness, hurled these notebooks to the floor, in a public demonstration of violent destruction and self-destruction, and then left. The audience, says Barber, was mostly hostile to Artaud and this performance.

Hostility greeted him, as it does madness, and in November of the same year, the government banned the projection of the text Artaud had prepared for the radio, To Finish With the Judgment of God for another public performance after the Vieux Colombier disaster. And a week before his death, giving up on trying a radio broadcast, he gave up on machines of every sort: “There where the machine is, / there’s always the abyss, the void, there’s a technical intervention which deforms and annihilates whatever you have done.” All of this accords with Artaud’s idea and our own of an apocalypse summoned.

His strategies are anti-representational in their violence, and that representation goes far indeed, toward the very undoing of the self. He says of his own writing, in January 1947, about his Henchmen and Torturings: “an infuriating book that is absolutely impossible to read / that nobody has ever read from end to end, / not even its own author, / because he doesn’t exist.”

As we look at the Barber book, a revelation in itself, and Artaud, mad or not, we re-encounter the actor who was Artaud always, first presenting himself as Brother Dominique, the monk holding up the bible to the Joan of Arc at the Stake in Honegger’s staging and music. I was initiated by Paul Claudel’s mesmerizing libretto many years ago, and recently, in New York in June of 2015, attending Marion Cotillard enacting Jeanne with the New York Philharmonic, I was reseeing and rehearing Paul Claudel’s text and thinking of this burning with Artaud, from wordless beginning to wordless end.

Always he stressed himself, and the reader, an addict in every sense of the word, absorbing heroin, cocaine, laudanum, and to ease the pain of the rectal cancer after he returned to Paris from Rodez in 1947, he excessively dosed on chloral hydrate and morphine until he died at the age of fifty-two, in 1948. Further fire-stuff: twenty-seven years after he was buried at the municipal cemetery at Ivry-sur-Seine, his body was excavated, “reduced” by part-incineration, and compressed into shards to fit in a box then taken to Marseilles to be reinterred. This is reduction indeed, and there he is, he too sealed, as surely as his spells, by fire.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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