Exercises in exorcism: the paradoxes of form in Artaud's early works.
He who has to be a creator has always to destroy. Nietzsche
This essay will consider four collections of Antonin Artaud's early literary works--L'Ombilic des limbes, Le Pese-nerfs, Fragments d'un journal d'enfer, and L'Art et la mort (1)--through a formal approach, performing a much-needed close reading in order both to come to a fuller understanding of them as literary productions and to expand upon our understanding of Artaud's larger project. I am taking my cue partly in response to a call issued by Alain and Odette Virmaux in 1997--a plea to bring Artaud's entire oeuvre into critical discussion, to not focus on the later, more well-known works to the exclusion of all else. (2) These early writings reveal much about Artaud's craft as a writer. They demonstrate a remarkable fusion of language, theme, imagery, and action. They execute Artaud's struggle with symbolic forms and literary devices via symbolic forms and literary devices. They enact, on all levels, Artaud's move from "literature" to the realm of the physical. As I will show, they begin the "desperate wrenching away" of the self (3) that Artaud grappled with throughout his life: they are exercises in exorcism.
These writings lead from the moment of Artaud's discovery of the central concern of both his life and his work (which occurs during the correspondence with Jacques Riviere) to his start in the practical theater. (4) These pieces have not received as much critical attention as have other works by Artaud. (5) Because of Artaud's wide-ranging significance, we often seem too impatient to read his individual works. The explicit formulations of his dramatic ideas (the manifestoes and writings about the Theater of Cruelty) have been explored extensively in theatrical terms; (6) and the letters and howls from his last years (Rodez, Ivry) have been investigated at length in terms of psychology, biography, madness, and modern society. (7) But the difficult hybrid texts I am tackling have been treated only in limited sources, perhaps testifying to a belief in their minor status in Artaud's oeuvre. It is my hope to establish them as crucial texts both in their own right and in our understanding of the full complexity--and even clarity--of Artaud's work.
It should be noted that these works, while scarcely treated elsewhere, or at all recently, (8) provided Derrida with much of the basis for "La parole soufflee," an essay that wrestles with Artaud's protest against exemplification and interpretation and the author's desire to respect that wish in the course of the (interpretive) essay. (9) Derrida argues, rightly, that Artaud was in "pursuit of a manifestation which would not be an expression but a pure creation of life" (10) and that Artaud's project, which was focused on nothing less than life, and only incidentally on art, could never be embodied in a work. But are these works to be read as "loss" or "matter without life" because of this? (11) Can we read them as more than betrayals of Artaud's ideal? These works, perhaps even more than many others by Artaud, can stand on their own once they have left his body. These internally conflicted entities continually enact the battle Artaud was waging in his life, they enable and necessitate Artaud's inexorable move toward the theater, (12) and yet they are, at the same time, exceptionally complex and well-crafted works of written language. It is with this is mind that I analyze L'Ombilic des limbes, Le Pese-nerfs, Fragments d'un journal d'enfer, and L'Art et la mort.
Reading these works closely, we can appreciate the fullness of Artaud's project in the way that the Virmaux have called for. Only at the end of this essay will I make suggestions as to how these readings can be explicitly linked to Artaud's later projects and his person. I will begin my analysis by setting forth the initial move of these works: the thematic and structural attack on existing forms. Secondly, I will read the works with a view to establishing their desired next move: the creation of a process of communication beyond language that would lead to unity and wholeness--a nerve-connection between bodies. The third move, then, is to the theater. I demonstrate this in a close reading of one of Artaud's most severely neglected works, "Paul les oiseaux, ou la place de l'amour." The fourth move is, finally, the transference of this process of rejection, creation, and physical embodiment. As Artaud conflates the authorial "I" of his writings with the mytho-historical figures he is describing, he begins to craft his self into his work, so that the project he pursues is not external to his life, but woven into "the web of my living soul." (13)
First move: Destruction
The first step these texts take is destruction. Like avant-garde manifestoes in their opening moves, these works renounce inherited forms. While they aim for the eradication of existing language--and the codified thinking that is intimately connected to it--the language that might replace it has not yet been found. These early works explode literary form: through their composition, arguments, and imagery, L'Ombilic, Le Pese-nerfs, Fragments, and L'Art et la mort wage a furious war against themselves.
The gesture of each of these four works is a structural attack; the staging of the conflict differs in each. L'Ombilic des limbes, the earliest of the collections, is the most compositionally jarring. Composed of twelve short pieces, it contains almost as many different literary forms. Three poems, two letters, a scenario, a play, an art review, and various mixtures of essays and personal statements interweave, keeping the reader careening through the collection, unsure of what genre of literary work is being presented. L'Art et la mort, the last of the works, utilizes a similar mixing of forms, but concentrates on prose hybrids that shift from direct address to fictional storytelling to personal letters often, as in L'Ombilic, attached to extremely long footnotes leading creeping lives of their own. Even within the individual sections of both collections, writing breaks out of traditional categories and refuses to produce simply a "review" or a "letter," or even a "narrative." Within L'Ombilic and L'Art et la mort, each piece, which is normally no more than a page or two long, shreds existing forms within itself, only to quickly give way to another piece that enacts the same conflict through a new combination of elements.
Le Pese-nerfs stages the attack differently. (14) Instead of combining the splinters of broken forms with each other, Le Pese-nerfs leaves the empty spaces that remain after this shattering on the page. Each shard of language stands out in high relief against the blank page behind it, the white backdrop intensifying its fragmentary nature and giving a visual representation of the iconoclastic gesture underlying the work as a whole. This forty-eight page collection of half as many pieces (the longest of which is five pages, the shortest, eleven words) contains no poems of recognizable form, although the language may be poetic, and no maxims, although the layout of the text evokes that genre. Moreover, the "content" persistently defies categorization: furious accusations, anguished personal examination, and detailed description of physical or mental states crowd the work. Each page, each measure of the "meter," demands new scrutiny from the reader.
Fragments d'un journal d'enfer continues in this vein, with short, complicated bits of writing paired together without, however, the blank spaces of Le Pese-nerfs. The effect of the published work resembles that of a writers' notebook--a chaotic assemblage of monstrous forms and aborted ideas. Both pieces utilize the short phrase or exhortation to great effect, promising, on a formal level, the digestibility of the maxim, even as the pieces' content breaks this promise by the difficulty and violence of the individual phrases' content.
The works explicitly and resolutely demand the demolition of "language" and "literature" through their subject matter. A key passage of Le Pese-nerfs exhorts: "Il ne faut pas trop laisser la litterature." (15) By pitting extant literary forms against each other, Artaud attempts to situate his work outside the realm of "literature," outside of existing forms of expression. While each collection focuses on the project from a different angle, the theme is the same. The preface to L'Ombilic, which defies the label of "preface," (16) exhorts: "we must get rid of literature," (17) and the point is driven home with even greater force in Le Pese-nerfs, with the declaration: "Toute l'ecriture est de la cochonnerie"--all writing is filth. (18) Le Pese-nerfs goes on to denounce authors who use literary language without considering that it can, in fact, shackle thought and trivialize experience--anyone, in short, who participates in the "literary scene," which is a "pigpen" (19):
Those for whom certain words have meaning,... those who are so precise, those for whom emotion can be classified and who quibble over some point of their hilarious classifications, those who still believe in "terms," ... those who follow paths, who drop names, who recommend books, --these are the worst pigs of all. (20)
This call for the destruction of literary forms stems from the inadequacy of literary codes to convey living thought or experience; issues raised in the Riviere correspondence are re-examined in these works. "It is this contradiction between my inner facility and my exterior difficulty which creates the torment of which I am dying." (21) This torment is sometimes formulated in terms of heroic defiance and artistic autonomy, as in Fragments: "I do not work within the confines of any realm," (22) a statement succinctly summarizing the project of these four works. But more frequently, anger at existing forms drives Artaud to some of his most powerful denunciations of literature--and of himself. In Le Pese-nerfs, notice the blank space after "mes" (in the English, after "mental"):
Je suis imbecile, par suppresion de pensee, par mal-formation de pensee, je suis vacant par stupefaction de ma langue. Tous les termes que je choisis pour penser sont pour moi des TERMES au sens propre du mot, de veritables terminaisons, des aboutissants de mes mentales, de tous les etats que j'ai fait subir a ma pensee. (23) I am an idiot by the suppression of thought, by the malformation of thought; I am vacant by the stupefaction of my tongue. (24) All the terms in which I choose to think are for me TERMS in the literal sense of the word, that is, true terminations, borders of my mental of all the states to which I have subjected my thinking. (25)]
This empty space instead of a word (in the original manuscript, the sentence simply breaks off and continues on the line below) epitomizes the formal correlation between the argument and structure in these works. Terms are markers of the end of thought, and Artaud will not subject his mental ____ to that kind of delimitation or circumscription. The connection of "terms" and "terminations" brilliantly encapsulates the quarrel with language; a refusal to use a word where none would do gives concrete expression to the renunciation.
In these four works, imagery also attempts to defeat itself, to raze conventional written language, and it comes dangerously closer to self-destruction. In L'Ombilic, especially, poetic images work more powerfully than reasoned arguments could hope to. A recurrent image in the collections (it appears in over half the pieces in L'Ombilic) is "la langue," which refers both to the tongue as a part of the body and to language. (26) The double meaning of the word plays itself out in many ways; first, the old langue must be destroyed in order to make way for the new:
Quitte ta langue, Paolo Uccello, quitte ta langue, ma langue, ma langue, merde, qui est-ce qui parle, ou es-tu? Outre, outre, Esprit, Esprit, feu, (27) langue de feu, feu, feu, mange ta langue, vieux chien, mange sa langue, mange, etc. J'arrache ma langue. OUI. (28) 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, eat your tongue, old dog, eat his tongue, eat, etc. I tear out my tongue. YES. (29)
Here, la langue is a "dead" ("feu") appendage to be destroyed. Yet it also embodies its opposite: on the level of signified, it is contradiction; on the level of signifier, it is force. It is the obsolete and the new at the same time.
In "Avec moi dieu-le-chien," a poem in L'Ombilic, la langue is power--or potential power--itself, a destructive, penetrative organ:
Avec moi dieu-le-chien, et sa langue qui comme un trait perce la croute de la double calotte en voute de la terre qui le demange. (30) With me god-the-hound, and his tongue which like an arrow pierces the crust of the double-vaulted dome of the earth that itches him. (31)
The poem goes on to depict a world under violent attack:
Et voici la vierge-au-marteau, pour broyer les caves de terre dont le crane du chien stellaire sent monter l'horrible niveau. (32) And here is the virgin-with-the-hammer to pound the caves of earth which the skull of the stellar dog feels hideously rise. (33)
The image of violation of the earth and sky presents with devastating force Artaud's need to crack open the inert realm of language--the realm that "itches him." Again and again, the works depict a penetration and disruption of the existing structures of the world. In a vision described in L'Ombilic, Artaud envisions a great storm, "conscious and teeming," bearing him along its course. Its center is "a kind of hard cosmic hammer ... which ... fall[s] like a brow in space." (34) This storm of thought and wind clears (erases) mental functions, and the power of it results in the climactic:
And all space trembled like a vagina being pillaged by the globe of the burning sky. And something like the beak of a real dove pierced the confused mass of states, all profound thinking at this moment formed layers, resolved itself, became transparent and reduced. (35)
To eradicate the organized thinking of the world, to do away with institutions and modes of thought that prevent direct communication between personal experience and expression--this goal is repeatedly played out in the imagery of these works. Inevitably, the organ of destruction, la langue, becomes a phallus, linking mastery of thought and language with the ultimate virility--the power to destroy and create. This especially figures in the essays in L'Art et la mort on Abelard and Heloise--or, rather, the characters Artaud creates based on their famous epistolary exchange. Artaud connects the transcendence of language to a sexual act; the release from imperfect forms coincides with Abelard's orgasm, who, at least for a moment, is free:
L'esprit momifie se dechaine. La vie haut bandee leve la tete. (36) Sera-ce enfin le grand degel? L'oiseau crevera-t-il l'embouchure des langues, les seins vont-ils se ramifier et la petite bouche reprendre sa place?... Oui, dans ma main il y a une rose, voici que ma langue tourne sans rien. (37) The mummified mind breaks loose. Life, highly constricted, lifts its head. Has the great thaw come at last? Will the bird burst through the gate of tongues, will the breasts branch out and the small mouth resume its place?... Yes, in my hand there is a rose, and my tongue shifts of itself. (38)
Will Abelard burst through "l'embouchure des langues"--the gate of tongues, or the mouth of language? When language is overcome, then the "small mouth [can] resume its place." For a moment, Abelard overcomes conventional restrictive language and begins to speak with his own voice, to speak beyond language, through pure physical force. But this freedom cannot last for long; Abelard is castrated (both physically and metaphorically, by the impossibility of transcendence), and when he is a eunuch, Artaud brings himself into the myth and identifies with him: "Poor man! Poor Antonin Artaud! For it is indeed he, this impotent wretch who scales the stars." (39) Artaud's personal inability (as formulated in the Riviere correspondence) to "create a thought that will hold," (40) to make thought and language coincide, surfaces, equating castration with the loss of the ability to master thought. La langue is both power and obstacle, and it resists any human effort to rise above the problem, as Abelard vainly attempts. Language demands either acceptance or destruction; the transcendence that Artaud longs for in this essay, and in others, is not a viable solution, not even metaphorically.
The most famous images of destruction in Artaud's works are found in Le Jet de sang, the last piece in L'Ombilic. The "well-ordered world" that the central figures, the lovers, rejoice in is quickly annihilated by cosmic devastation: hurricanes, plagues, and recurrent thunder and lightning throw the other typically bourgeois characters into wild disarray. The entire world order is upset, and the most outrageous act of rebellion occurs: a whore bites God on the wrist. The ultimate refusal to abide by established rules comes from the pariah of society, who violates the most immutable signifier of universal order: God himself.
Where does this destruction lead? The ruin left in these works' wake is not the ultimate goal. Alongside this violent upheaval runs the desire to remake the world. In Artaud's early writings, the need to destroy follows, in a recurrent paradox, the desperate need for unification. Even Le Jet de sang, despite its violent overturning of cosmic order, ends with the dead female lover reviving, jumping up, and exclaiming, "The virgin! So that's what he was looking for!" (41) Artaud's literary transgressions are always matched by cries for reunion with a oneness that has been lost.
The works discussed above express this need in many ways, sometimes explicitly, as in a letter in L'Ombilic, when the author asks a doctor to "reunite what is separated, to rebuild what is destroyed." (42) Other times, the interdependence of birth and death are expressed imagistically, as in "Dark Poet," where images of sterility and fertility intertwine, as with "breast of a virgin," "the sky sucks up its rain," and "the sky rushes into nostrils/like a nourishing blue milk." (43) Another piece pairs "women with pretty cunts" with their own "miniature corpses." (44) The most striking of these couplings occurs in Artaud's description of Andre Masson's painting "L'homme," in which the primary images are "a slender belly" and a burst grenade. (45) The truth Artaud sees in this painting is so profound that he ends the essay with: "I have described this painting with tears, for this painting touches me to the heart." (46) The painting depicts devastation and creation integrally linked, as Artaud describes it: "The belly evokes surgery and the Morgue, the construction yard, the public square." (47) Out of the exploded grenade spiral cells, eggs, germs. Masson's power to create new life from ruins realizes Artaud's poetic ambition.
Do these works discussed above create from the ashes, which Artaud perceived Masson's painting as doing, or do they only demolish and yearn for the new? Ideally, one would come to a new literary form through this process--the cries for destruction are precisely matched by calls for creation. But what is this new form--what are its boundaries, its delineations?
Is the new form destruction itself? New artistic movements typically renounce certain existing forms, but to rest in that moment of renunciation implies something beyond the explicit denial. (48) Vital precursors of Artaud, the dadaists, judged not only that existing forms were inadequate, but that "form" itself, as a concept, was unacceptable. Their activities proclaimed destruction--as a force, as a movement--the only valid goal. The new form is the destroying of old forms; the new form is action.
In many ways, Artaud's project at this stage bears a deep resemblance to that of the dadaists. The essence of the Zurich-based movement was activity, a kind of determined propulsion; it was not primarily concerned with literature, or art, or creating works. Similarly, Artaud's impulse is action, to break through inherited languages and established structures; it exists independently of any one form and goes beyond the realm of the artistic. But Artaud wishes, ultimately, to express (or create) himself; thus, he moves beyond destruction--and here he differs from the dadaists and comes closer to Alfred Jarry--and closer to creation. The Artaudian vision is of a day when actions would be manifestations of impulses, not channeled by rules or custom--direct, unmediated expressions of thought and life. Artaud searches for a language that would be the consummation of impulse and expression. If the impulse could become one with its manifestation, the form would be created.
This desire inspires the creation of the Nerve Meter.
Et je vous l'ai dit: pas d'oeuvres, pas de langue, pas de parole, pas d'esprit, rien. Rien, sinon un beau Pese-Nerfs. Une sorte de station incomprehensible et tout droite au milieu de tout dans l'esprit. (49) And I have already told you: no works, no language, no words, no mind, nothing. Nothing but a fine Nerve Meter. A kind of incomprehensible stopping place in the mind, right in the middle of everything. (50)
This Nerve-Meter, located in "l'esprit," (51) would be a fusion of thought and action, form and content. It would be a direct transmission between people, between that part of them that Artaud refused to define with a word--a mental state, being, thought, spirit. It is not logical or even definable; it transcends understanding. The Meter would replace words, language, even "works." It would be exactly what Artaud's early and late writings both demand, a mode of communication bypassing language and simply connecting living bodies or states of being to each other. The Meter is life itself. Bodies acting upon bodies, shared emotion and experience: the Nerve Meter, and all of Artaud's literary works from this period, push his project out into a new realm: the theatrical.
The battle embodied: "Paul les oiseaux"
These four works each take steps toward the theater on several different levels. Already, Artaud's impulse is bursting out of all forms of pagebound literature, no matter how free a form he employs. (52) Artaud's vision of the Nerve Meter is the first step en route to his theatrical the ories--bodies must be in direct communication with other bodies, interchanging emotions and thoughts without the mediation of words. Physical immanence is essential to Artaud's project, and it is this budding realization that makes all of these works aspire to the theatrical.
Acceptance of the physical body did not come easily to Artaud, in his work or in his life. (53) By the time he was writing Le Pese-nerfs, he had recognized the place of the body in his work--it is excruciatingly present in this collection, and the imagined Nerve Meter is his most sophisticated description of how the human nervous system could be a communicating vessel. But to reach that point, a battle had to be fought between Mind and Body, a battle that is best expressed in the complex "Paul les oiseaux, ou la place de l'amour."
"Paul les oiseaux" was published in L'Ombilic des limbes, after having gone through at least two drafts and much revision for over a year. Artaud wrote in a letter that it was "a document for myself," a "landmark," and that its gaps ("lacunes") are precisely what express the essence of his project best. (54) "Paul les oiseaux" dramatizes the rift between Mind and Body. (55) The struggle between the two, each trying to gain ascendancy, translates into the struggle between literature and theater: literature, at this juncture, has been purely a mental phenomenon for Artaud; theater is necessarily physical. As the characters argue about the place of the mind and the body in life, the piece ricochets between narrative and playscript.
"Paul les oiseaux" is essay, personal narrative, play, poem, scenario. It moves from one form to another as the argument develops between the two principal characters, Paolo Uccello and Brunelleschi. As Artaud conceives them, Uccello, a painter, "represents the Mind" and Brunelleschi, the architect, "firmly rooted in this world," represents the body. (56) The situation, taken from a mostly fictional essay on Uccello by Marcel Schwob, (57) concerns Paolo's obsession with perspective in his painting, to the exclusion of the material world around him. His wife, Selvaggia, is dying of starvation, because Paolo has been too obsessed with his work to notice there is no food in the house. Brunelleschi, who desires Selvaggia, blames Uccello for her death, for having "killed life"--Selvaggia represents life itself. The painter and the architect are thus set in equal opposition to each other--"Where is the place of love?", a question echoing the subtitle of the piece, concerns both Paolo's abstract obsession with form and Brunelleschi's earthly lust for Selvaggia. Is the place of love--or life, as Selvaggia represents both--in the mind or in the body?
A debate between the two characters addresses the mental/physical and literary/dramatic schism on all levels. It begins in narrative prose with Paolo describing the argument, then breaks into dramatic dialogue to elucidate Brunelleschi's point of view:
ME--I am the mind. The Mind is above life. BRUNELLESCHI--Oh! let us all die, let us do away with all problems. Let vain word-winds also fade away. Each breath is empty. The mind is not outside our lungs. You, the Birds, are also flesh and blood. (58)
Both Brunelleschi's argument and indomitable physical presence--implied by the theatrical arrangement on the page--have a great impact on Paolo. The break into dialogue disrupts the purely literary structure of the piece--the physical, as represented by the dramatic structure, intrudes on the mental. (Another version of "Paul les oiseaux" has Brunelleschi rip "the wholly mental tone of the drama open with a solid clenched fist." (59)) The theatrical--the physical--overpowers, for a moment, the literary and abstract. "This touches me to the quick," Paolo thinks in response to Brunelleschi's tirade, then:
ME--I can't hear anymore. I can't hear anymore. (60)
Paolo/Artaud cannot reconcile his mental and physical beings. Throughout this piece, the ideal world of abstraction that Paolo tries to inhabit is disrupted by Brunelleschi's physical presence and desires, and the text reflects this dialectic as it struggles between a purely pagebound literary experience and a theatrical scenario.
The first version of this piece was titled "Poeme Mental"; in the second draft, it is referred to as a "drame mental," reflecting its defiance of any conventional labels. Narrative prose and theatrical writing contentiously inhabit the same space--descriptions of mental states follow descriptions of set design; character's thoughts follow theatrical character notes. The authorial voice addresses the structure of the piece: "I saw this as a play, but it would take place solely in the mind. This is why I am so preoccupied about my characters being physically real." (61) The apparent paradox in this statement evokes a theatrical space in the reader's mind. Does the piece obliterate the necessity for a play to be staged? Yet physicality--or the need for it--matters very much in this piece, in violent conjunction with the work's deeply abstract preoccupations of perspective and identity. Paolo and Brunelleschi, abstractness and physicality--the oppositions war with each other, and neither wins. Paolo watches his wife die and indifferently paints the vanishing of her form; Brunelleschi, unable to control his physical self, ends the piece with a violent orgasm/explosion. For now, a stalemate reigns: the schism between mind and body, literature and theater, remains unresolved. But in this piece Artaud takes steps toward the acknowledgment of the body's--and theater's--ultimate place in his work.
While Artaud had come to realize the importance of physical presence to his project by the writing of Le Pese-nerfs, it wasn't until over a year later that he started to express his impulse in the theatrical realm. (62) But another form of expression that took the body into account was being erected during this period of upheaval, one that took a lifetime to perfect. In these early works, Artaud's self and art begin to fuse, and a new persona emerges. Several pieces from these collections reveal the creation and re-creation of Antonin Artaud.
In this period, Artaud began to identify with mytho-historical characters. (63) The piece on Paolo Uccello exemplifies this tendency: Uccello was a real painter of the early Renaissance, genuinely preoccupied with form, to the detriment, many critics say, of his art. But Schwob's essay on Uccello in Vies imaginaires takes this one trait and explodes it into a fantastic myth: Uccello lets his wife die because of his obsession with perspective; his friends try to convince him to give it up; his final work is an indecipherable series of intersecting lines. Artaud uses this extrapolation and goes even further, creating a Uccello obsessed with perspective because he was obsessed with the mind, scorning the concrete reality of things. His friend, the architect Brunelleschi, becomes his antithesis, a creator of tangible structures, solely concerned with the body. The character of Uccello is now historical and mythic: historically grounded, fictionally augmented. And this is the character with whom Artaud chooses to identify.
"I am lodged in the myth," Artaud writes, "I really am Paul the Birds" (CW, 150). The power gained by this identification is manifold. Artaud enjoys the position of objective observer on his life:
At times I am in life and at other times I am above life. I am like a character in a play who has the power to look upon himself, being pure abstraction at times, simply a mental creation, and at other times the investor and animator of this man created in the mind. (64)
He can live his life and look at it; he is both creator and created. Artaud yearns to observe himself from an outsider's perspective, while still retaining his ability to act. The character he invents is both Uccello and Artaud; he coalesces the torments and concerns of both in one figure. He writes that "Paolo Uccello continues the ticklish process of this desperate wrenching away of himself," as he himself does the same in writing the line. (65) Artaud wrenches himself from an individual view of his existence, bringing himself into the mythic character--"At times he is the creator, at other times the contents." (66) On a meta-fictional, meta-personal level, Artaud is creating a character by identification, invention, and self-examination. It is both universalist and solipsistic, inclusive and exclusive. Artaud's concerns are Uccello's concerns, and vice-versa. He creates a persona with both mytho-historic resonance and highly personal significance.
Artaud participates in the formulation of his own myth by associating an existing one with himself. He continues this process of identification in other works on Uccello, Abelard, the Roman emperor Heliogabalus, even Jesus Christ. Each of these men, with one foot in history and one in mythology, provides an ideal site of identification for Artaud. To identify with such a character would be to root himself in a real person, and also in the whole legacy that comes with that person through time--his aura, his legendary significance. By attaching himself to such figures, Artaud attaches wider consequences to his personal identity and project.
Identification with these characters also provides him with a way into the problem he was constantly working. An early draft of the Uccello essay is followed by a prose monologue, "Une prose pour l'homme au crane en citron" ("Letter to a Lemon-Headed Man"). It describes how Artaud is "obsessed by the theme of Paolo Uccello," and how the "whole theme has passed into [him]." (67) Language, expression, and personal anguish still haunt him on every level, but he now explores it through the lens of Uccello's story: "The theme has become my mouthpiece." (68) He attributes to Uccello the same problem he himself suffers: "the mental agony of a man and the divergence of his thought." (69) Through this character, Artaud will continue to explore his own mind, but he needs to "fuse" Uccello and his personal mythology in order to tackle the problem with the desired objectivity.
"What is important in such an attempt?" Artaud asks. "The exaggerated material should be true." (70) Alfred Jarry's insistence on a fictional character's superiority to a real one echoes loudly here: that which we imagine has more value than that which is given. (71) In this process of remaking the self, identifying with another is the first step away from whatever identity nature has provided. "We can do anything in the mind," Artaud writes--even create a new self. (72) Both Artaud and Jarry, at different points in their careers, renounced their given identities and denied the concrete facts of their parentage. Jarry baldly stated: "Our father could not have played a role in the creation of our person," and Artaud claimed later that he was "born out of my works and not out of a mother." (73) The new self that emerged was their own invention, a fusion of physical life and self-created mythology.
Artaud acknowledged a familial line of his own choosing. Jarry, Rimbaud, Nerval, Lautreamont--these are the figures to whom he consistently linked himself. All these men called for a self in the service of an art. Rimbaud stated it the most explicitly, exhorting the poet to shape himself into a visionary: "Je est un autre." Nerval had already proclaimed "Je suis l'autre," and Isidore Ducasse simply wrote this new self, this "autre," directly into his assumed name, becoming the Comte de Lautreamont. (74) Artaud chose as his ancestors men whose artistic projects involved a total participation and recreation of the self.
"Je n'ai plus qu'une occupation--me refaire," (75) Artaud writes in Le Pese-nerfs--remaking himself is the only project. The figures he returns to again and again--Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Nerval, Jarry--all passed the line where art and life could remain separate. They each had fused, or attempted to fuse, their selves with their artistic projects. This same quality is what excites Artaud about the mytho-historical figures with whom he merged--their legends are inseparable from a particular quality, a trait that defined them and their course of actions. Uccello's obsession with perspective, Abelard's passion, Heliogabalus's hedonism--each figure was propelled by a force that shaped his life and his myth according to its demands. By identifying himself with these characters, Artaud solidifies his own obsessions and creates his own mythic persona.
In the Riviere correspondence, Artaud equates the success of his poetry with the success of his life. The equation tightens when he begins to erase the lines between the two. "I cannot conceive of a work that is detached from life," he writes in L'Ombilic, "I do not like detached creation." (76) His mental concerns fuse with his physical body: "Nothing touches me, nothing interests me except what addresses itself directly to my flesh." (77) As the body becomes inextricably involved with the mind in his literary works, Artaud's impulse begins to manifest itself in more physical realms. He moves out of literary forms into theater, and into life.
These four works are Artaud's last major literary efforts until the essays of Le theatre et son double, which he would begin in 1931. It is as if he had exhausted literature with these works--for now, he could go no further in this medium. He was bringing his project into the living body, and the dramatic was the only possible mode. The impulse that was propelling him needed to break out of traditional literary forms and manifest itself in other realms. This burgeoning theatricality comes to life in Artaud's Theatre Alfred Jarry in 1926, while the persona--the character--that he begins to construct for himself in these works continues to develop. As he brings his project into the flesh, Artaud simultaneously brings his flesh--his very identity--into his project. At this stage Artaud is becoming, on many levels, a man of the theater.
(1) L'Ombilic des limbes, July 1925: Le Pese-nerfs, August 1925; Fragments d'un journal en enfer, Spring 1926; L'Art et la mort, April 1929 (but all pieces written between 1925 and 1927).
(2) "Mais la focalisation obligee sur ces textes-la [a Ivry, la conference du Vieux-Colombier, etc.] doit-elle conduire a faire l'impasse sur la totalite des oeuvres anterieures, comme si c'etaient des ecrits de jeunesse assez secondaires?" Alain and Odette Virmaux, "Dieu Merci, Artaud n'est plus a la mode!" Europe: revue litteraire mensuelle (Jan/Feb 1997): 209.
(3) Collected Works of Antonin Artaud, trans. Victor Corti (London: Calder and Boyars, 1968) 52. (hereafter CW).
(4) In the Theatre Alfred Jarry, 1926-1929.
(5) The uncertain place that L'Ombilic des limbes, Le Pese-nerfs, Fragments d'un journal d'enfer, and L'Art et la mort have held in the Artaudian canon surely stems, in part, from their unclassifiability within the established critical discourse on Artaud: they are not (explicitly) works on the theater, and they are not the seemingly unmediated irruptions that his last poems are.
(6) Most American criticism revolves around the Theater of Cruelty and its influence (with an emerging field of cinema and visual art studies), while French criticism leans toward the later, post-asylum works. Book-length explorations of Artaud's theatrical concepts include: Henri Gouhier, Antonin Artaud et l'essence du theatre (Paris: Vrin, 1974); Eric Sellin, The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); Alain Virmaux, Antonin Artaud et le theatre (Paris: Seghers, 1970); and Antonin Artaud and the Modern Theater, ed. Gene A. Plunka (London: AUP, 1994) (which continues this vein of analysis in the context of modern theater).
(7) Two of the most notable investigations are Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (trans. Helen R. Lane et al., Minneapolis: University Minnesota Press, 1983) and Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (trans. Richard Howard, New York: Vintage Books, 1988). The Tel Quel group has also generally focused heavily on this aspect of Artaud's legacy, especially using Artaud's later works.
(8) Another treatment of these works comes, almost incidentally, in Maurice Blanchot, "Artaud," La Nouvelle Revue Francaise (November 1956, no. 47). The following authors have addressed these works in their book-length studies of Artaud: Albert Bermel, Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty (New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1977); Julia F. Costich, Antonin Artaud (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978); and Naomi Greene, Antonin Artaud: Poet Without Words (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970). A fine, if brief, discussion of them can be found in Camille Dumoulie's Antonin Artaud (Paris: Seuil, 1996), discussed below.
(9) Derrida writes about the difficulty of writing about Artaud in a recent essay, "Artaud, Oui ..." Europe: revue litteraire mensuelle (Jan-Feb. 2002): 23-38.
(10) Jacques Derrida, "La parole soufflee"; translations from Writing and Difference (trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 175.
(11) Derrida, "La parole soufflee," 177.
(12) Derrida: "The adventure of the Poem is the last anguish to be suppressed before the adventure of the Theater." ("La parole soufflee," 185)
(13) CW, 18.
(14) Le Pese-nerfs was published first by itself in 1925, then in an edition with Fragments d'un journal d'enfer in 1927.
(15) Le Pese-nerfs suivi des fragments d'un journal d'enfer (ed. Andre Masson, Marseille: Cahiers du Sud, 1927) 12.
(16) "And this is no more the preface to a book than the poems which are scattered here and there, or the enumeration of all the rages of ill-being." Translated by Helen Weaver in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) 59. (hereafter SW).
(17) SW, 59.
(18) Le Pese-nerfs, 33, my trans.
(19) SW, 85.
(20) SW, 85.
(21) L'Art et la mort, CW, 93.
(22) SW, 96.
(23) Le Pese-nerfs, 27.
(24) "[M]a langue"--the original French implies both "tongue" and "language"; see below.
(25) SW, 83.
(26) It also connotes "argot." Another reading, then, could interpret his renunciation of language as a renunciation of a particular type of language; of a specialized form; of jargon.
(27) "Feu" also means "late" or "deceased"; thus, "dead spirit" and "dead language" are explicitly targeted.
(28) (Euvres completes d'Antonin Artaud, v. 1-26 (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), I, 54. (hereafter OC).
(29) SW, 61. Throughout these early works, Helen Weaver translates "langue" as "tongue," perhaps relying on the sometimes use of "tongue" as "language" in English to convey the double meaning. The Collected Works employs, at different times, both translations of the word.
(30) OC, I, 52.
(31) SW, 60.
(32) OC, I, 52.
(33) SW, 61.
(34) SW, 59-60. (OC 1, 63).
(35) SW, 60.
(36) "Bander" also refers to having an erection.
(37) OC, I, 134.
(38) SW, 130. See Collected Works translation with a different emphasis: "mouths of speech," "and now my tongue is silent" (CW, I, 98).
(39) SW, 134.
(40) SW, 134.
(41) SW, 76.
(42) SW, 61.
(43) SW, 67-8.
(44) SW, 71.
(45) "Grenade" also refers to "pomegranate," an extremely suggestive double entendre.
(46) SW, 67.
(47) SW, 67.
(48) A creative renunciation that again calls to mind Nietzsche: "That I have to be struggle and becoming and goal and conflict of goals: ah, he who divines my will surely divines, too, along what crooked paths it has to go!" Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1961) 138.
(49) Le Pese-nerfs, 35.
(50) SW, 86.
(51) A translation of "esprit" in English is clearly a compromise--esprit being approximately a combination of "spirit" and "mind."
(52) During this period he begins writing dramatic scenarios and finishes his first play, Le jet de sang.
(53) See "La parole soufflee," passim.
(54) OC, I, 108, my trans.
(55) As Camille Dumoulie has written, "le drame de sa vie: 'separation.' Antonin Artaud (Paris: Seuil, 1996) 12. Dumoulie treats Artaud's writings on Paolo Uccello in some detail in this chapter.
(56) CW, 53.
(57) Marcel Schwob, "Paolo Uccello," in Vies imaginaires (Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1929); discussed further below.
(58) CW, 149.
(59) CW, 53.
(60) CW, 149.
(61) CW, 150.
(62) Namely, in the Theatre Alfred Jarry, founded in 1926.
(63) Dumoulie: this period introduces "la convocation de figures mythiques dans lesquelles investir son drame personnel" (16).
(64) CW, 150.
(65) CW, 52.
(66) CW, 147.
(67) CW, 151.
(68) CW, 151.
(69) CW, 152.
(70) CW, 152.
(71) See "Twelve Theatrical Topics" in Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, eds. Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor (New York: Grove Press, 1965).
(72) CW, 152.
(73) SW, 442.
(74) For an excellent analysis of these "precursors," see Ronald Hayman's Artaud and After (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
(75) OC, I, 117.
(76) SW, 59.
(77) SW, 93.
University of California-Santa Cruz
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|Title Annotation:||Antonin Artaud|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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