The asylum of nonsense: Antonin Artaud's translation of Lewis Carroll.
Both attitudes, however, fail to take into account the nature of the dialogue between readability and unreadability, between meaning and nonmeaning, that is established by Artaud's particular torquing of language. The very structure of the writing-built on a tension between idiolectal aberrations and grammatically correct French forms-prevents us from dismissing Artaud's ostensibly untranslatable utterances as signs of his lapsing into the state of solipsistic self-enclosure that we might associate with madness, but gestures toward an attempt to reach outside and beyond the walls of his private malady. What is significant about this attempt is that it conjoins the sustained destruction of both language and linguistic structures with the implicit program to renew those structures by jolting their users out of their ingrained complacency. Yet how does the demise of language's socially recognizable forms entail its renewal? In what way can communication take place if the medium in which it must occur moves toward the unrepeatability of the untranslatable utterance?
The dialogic dimension of Artaud's idiosyncratic idiom can be gauged by observing not only the particular nature of his invented syllables and guttural clusters but also the contextual conditions that fostered their emergence. These syllabic clusters (which have typically been studied in the context of glossolalia-the age-old tradition of speaking in tongues) make their first appearance in Artaud's work during his confinement to the asylum of Rodez (1943-46), and most importantly when he was given a text by Lewis Carroll to translate as an artistic-therapeutic experiment. The text in question is the episode of "Humpty Dumpty" in Through the Looking-Glass (originally published in 1871), in which the eponymous philosopher-egg engages the adventurous heroine Alice in a lively conversation on the topic of the possibility of inventing language and of reassigning meaning to common words, via an impromptu exegesis of the enigmatic poem "Jabberwocky." Yet, the piece that Artaud produced, which was published in 1947 under the title L'Arve et l'Aume and with the provocative subtitle Tentative anti-grammaticale a propos de Lewis Carroll et contre lui, is far from what might be conventionally called a translation; nor does it seem to suggest the success of a therapy designed to curb what was judged to be an internally devolving language.
Indeed, the opening lines of L'Arve et l'Aume leave the reader uneasy--unsure of both the translation methods and the sanity of the translator. In lieu of Carroll's sober "However, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human" (181), we find a neologism inserted into a syntactically disrupted sentence with a rhythmical alliterative string of words that escape precise grammatical definition: "Cependant, l'oeuf narmissait a vue d.oeil, s.en troublant tira doc vers l'oc de l'oc humain" (Artaud, OEuvres 917). This neologizing anti-grammaticality continues throughout the second paragraph, where Carroll's sentence "she thought he must be a stuffed figure after all" (181) is rendered as follows: "Elle pensa que ce lhomme pouvait bien ln'etre qu.etre un insuffle pontin rum bourre apres taim: un" (Artaud, OEuvres 917). The reader.s sense of unease reaches its apex when he is confronted with a block of apparently incomprehensible syllabic units, set off from the rest of the text, that purport to be a paragraph-translation of Carroll's one-word poem title "Jabberwocky":
NEANT OMO NOTAR NEMO
Sofar Ami--Tantar Upti
Momar Uni--Septfar Esti
Gonpar Arak--Alak Eli
Adding to the reader.s confusion, Artaud inserts a footnote to this block of syllables: "Si tout cela ne plait pas on peut choisir comme titre une seule de ces phrases, par exemple: MOMAR UNI ou GONPAR ARAK ALAK ELI, qui veut dire: as-tu compris?" (OEuvres 922)--a sly comment that renders the reader all the more acutely aware that he has, in fact, not understood.
Artaud's own remarks on his activity as Carroll's translator further compound the reader.s suspicions: in a gesture that is absurdly anachronistic, Artaud accuses Carroll of having plagiarized a language that he himself had invented but that had mysteriously been lost during his years of internment. The nature of his unclassifiable words becomes all the more complex: they are perceived to be translations of Carroll's nonsense words and expressions (the famous "portmanteaus" that pepper the poem "Jabberwocky"); these, in turn, are defined as plagiarized appropriations of a lost language originally invented by Artaud himself. Translating Carroll would then imply a process of "back-translation" that would reinstitute Artaud as the rightful and original author.
The temporal confusion and anti-grammatical tendencies displayed by L'Arve et l'Aume might at first appear to uphold the image of Artaud (at least, in his later years) as falling victim to the mental illness that plagued him from a young age, becoming immured within the walls of his personal linguistic asylum. Indeed, because grammatical and syntactical coherence is what sustains the logical structure of language and, ultimately, holds language together, disrupting syntax amounts to chaos, silence, or madness. Yet what this cursory reading fails to grasp is the importance that derives from the fact that Artaud's broken language and cries find their origin in a process of translation. As indicators of singularity, his invented syllables and guttural cries intern their utterer within the walls of his utterance; but, as products of translation (albeit of an unconventional nature), they propel their author into a skewed conversation with another voice, establishing and subverting a literary and cultural filiation with the genre of nonsense-writing that proved to have a series of far-reaching consequences, opening up the figurative and material walls of the asylum.
By challenging translation, both practically and theoretically, L'Arve et l'Aume constitutes a hereto underappreciated document for reading Artaud's idiosyncratic language; a careful reading of this text, then, along with an exploration of the context in which it was produced, is essential for obtaining a more nuanced understanding of Artaud's idiolect. Furthermore, by revealing the role that madness and therapy hold in the translative process, this text not only allows for some important theoretical insights with regard to translation but also helps us conceptualize the elusive relationship between madness, language, and literature. Through the analysis of L'Arve et l'Aume, we come to appreciate the place of untranslatability within literary practice, and the potential inherent in anti-grammatical writing for simultaneously destroying and renewing language, while providing a context for curing the language user from the perceived madness of language itself.
Nonsense and the Asylum
L'Arve et l'Aume is undeniably a hard-to-classify text. The translation was commissioned by Artaud's primary doctor and director of the asylum at Rodez, Gaston Ferdiere, for two main purposes: primarily, this task was intended therapeutically, as a means for Artaud to come out of what Ferdiere saw as a form of autism--premonitory signs of which he had diagnosed in Artaud's 1924 Correspondance avec Jacques Riviere. (1) Secondarily, the text was part of a series of experiments used by Ferdiere to study the relationship between linguistic dysfunctions, literature, and medicine, the results of which he then published in an article entitled "Les Mots-valises" in 1948. In this article, Ferdiere brings together examples of verbal creation taken from translations of Carroll, children's nursery rhymes, poets' verbal collages, and schizophrenics' utterances, with a view to examining the unstable boundary between "sante" and "maladie mentale" ("Les Mots-valises" 31). From these comments it becomes apparent that the context in which Artaud's translation was solicited and produced is one that conjoins the medical and literary fields; in such a context, translation becomes an activity that lies at the intersection of the clinical and the critical, treading a fine line between madness and therapy. But what exactly is meant by these terms? Given Artaud's subsequent "descent" into linguistic idiosyncrasy, can we think of translation as a therapeutic act that would restore the original text in another language, or, rather, should we think of translation as an act that, in the process of transfer that it implies, breaks open the original and leads to the madness of language and self? Indeed, does madness here refer to the illness affecting the individual who translates or, rather, to a pathology of language itself?
In order to explore possible answers to these questions, we must note that Ferdiere presented his therapeutic program in terms of a sustained process designed to manage a very real and incurable illness, one that affected Artaud's language and sense of self. Indeed, Artaud's mental condition, famously diagnosed as "irreversible" by Jacques Lacan (qtd. in Lotringer 83), was managed through a program of art therapy designed to treat rather than to cure. Ferdiere was keen to draw a distinction between the terms soigner and guerir in a letter published in the special issue of La Tour de feu (1971), aptly titled "J'ai soigne Antonin Artaud":
Car enfin je n'avais certes pas 'gueri' Antonin Artaud et il etait vraisemblablement inguerissable avec les ressources actuelles de la therapeutique psychiatrique. Et puis je vois mal, en face d'un etre si exceptionnel, le sens exact du mot 'guerison,' des mots 'sante mentale'! Du moins j'avais rendu Artaud a la vie sociale le 25 mai 1946. Du moins encore--et surtout--j'avais rendu Artaud a la creation artistique et poetique. (29)
Faced with the limits of medicine at that time, Ferdiere takes the credit for having rendered this "exceptional" patient amenable for social integration and renewed activity. Ferdiere's formulation poses the problem of incurability in terms of semantic instability by relating it to the concept of the exceptional being: Artaud's exceptionality is that which blurs the semantic boundaries between mental health and illness. The treatment designed to counter the silence of solipsism thus occurs in the space opened up by this semantic blurring--significantly, this is the space of nonsense-writing, which functions precisely by reassigning meanings to words (as per Humpty Dumpty's injunction: "When I use a word [...] it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less" [Carroll 186]). The form that this treatment took was a process of re-education from the margins of exceptionality into the fold of publicly established linguistic and social conventions, via two routes: on the one hand, the work on language in the form of literary translation, and, on the other hand, an operation on the disarticulated and suffering body through electroshock treatment. This twofold therapy responds to the dual nature of Artaud's illness, as he himself had already self-diagnosed it in his letters to Riviere. In these letters, Artaud lucidly describes his malady as a perpetual loss of thought and being that manifests itself, on the one hand, in gaping absences of the self to itself and, on the other hand, in unstable sentences riddled with "impuretes et indecisions" (OEuvres 70).
The specific illness from which Artaud was diagnosed as suffering at Rodez was paraphrenic delirium. Ferdiere characterizes paraphrenia as a primarily linguistic affliction that, while leaving the personality of the patient fundamentally unaltered, induces him to talk gibberish: "Les paraphrenes ont un delire extremement riche, fantastique, confabulant, mais qui, contrairement a ce qui se passe chez les paranoides, ne repond a aucune alteration de la personnalite profonde, de la memoire, du jugement, du raisonnement. [...] Ils disent des conneries monumentales" (qtd. in Lotringer 211). In this light, it seems surprising that Ferdiere would have chosen to give Artaud a nonsense- text, because literary nonsense is rife with characters who revel in inane banter and spout out non-sequiturs. Such a choice might appear to indulge rather than curtail the tendencies toward gibberish that Ferdiere found so alarming. (2) On closer inspection, however, Ferdiere's choice of text is extremely insightful. This is because nonsense, in its literary acceptation, distinguishes itself from pure gibberish by creating a structured text in which the language of madness can be both expressed and contained. (3) One of the founding critics of the genre of literary nonsense, Jean-Jacques Lecercle expresses this thought by comparing the nonsense-text to a "verbal asylum" and the functioning of nonsense as a genre to a "safeguard": "Le texte du Nonsense est un asile langagier, et le Nonsense lui-meme [...] un garde-fou" (258). Lecercle's formulation is particularly interesting for understanding Artaud's twofold enclosure, in the asylum of Rodez and in the asylum of Carroll's text. The term "asylum" implies both an inviolable sanctuary that offers protection from an outside danger and a therapeutic place of rest for those who are thought to be unfit for social integration. By being qualified as "verbal," the "asylum" takes on a new density and its association with nonsense becomes more significant. On the one hand, if nonsense is thought to be an asylum of language, it constitutes a purely linguistic world where reality is created by savvy wordplay (as in the case of the bread-and-butterfly creature that lives in Wonderland) and where characters from nursery rhymes, like Humpty Dumpty, believe in their own existence beyond their textual origin. On the other hand, if nonsense is an asylum for language, it offers a refuge for an ailing or persecuted language, which comes to nonsense in search of its own survival. Nonsense thus appears to provide the tools for the protection and cure of language--whether it is besieged by barbarians of the word (4) or internally ailing--as well as the locus in which the therapy of language can play itself out.
On reflection, then, it was surprisingly fitting for Artaud's doctors to have prescribed the translation of a nonsense-text. Artaud's engagement with Carroll's nonsense-writing--and in particular the poem "Jabberwocky," which Lecercle holds up as an emblem of nonsense as a genre--would constitute an oasis for his own debilitated and debilitating language (of which, as we have seen, he claims the inadequacy to his thought and being) as well as the attempted cure for his loss of language. Yet, the idiosyncratic nature of L'Arve et l'Aume raises the question of whether the translation of nonsense-language is in fact a successful therapy. Within the verbal asylum of Carroll's text, Artaud's treatment of nonsense takes the form of a medical engagement with the language of madness; but rather than diffusing this language, Artaud's clinical gesture appears to explode Carroll's mad yet contained discourse. What, then, can be said of the status of Artaud's language? Does his neologizing and anti-grammatical treatment of Carroll's self-contained nonsense result in a critically untranslatable, and therefore clinically incurable, hermetic idiolect? Or do his mysterious syllables achieve on another level the cure of both language and its speaking subject--which nonsense proposes to do through verbal containment--by exploiting the very fear of contagion? In what way can translation be considered therapeutic if such linguistic madness constitutes a direct result of the very process of translation?
Artaud's "Cruel" Translation
In order to understand how translation, as a practice, can be thought of as residing at the intersection of the medical and the literary--and what the theoretical implications of this are--we must observe that Artaud did not know English. (5) This detail is significant because it brings to the fore an essential connection between physical and verbal therapy, which implicates the subject in a particular set of ways. Not knowing English forced Artaud to enter into dialogue with someone who did: the chaplain at Rodez, abbe Julien. In the battle against the silence of solipsism, this therapeutic setting brought together a textual dialogue with a vocal one: by conjoining the written and the oral, the translative collaboration becomes a scene of interpretation, both intellectual and physical.
The abbe Julien, in a letter for the aforementioned issue of La Tour de feu, describes this joint effort as a complex staging process:
Ce n'est qu'apres un certain temps, sur le conseil du Dr Ferdiere, qu'Artaud entrait vraiment en relation avec moi au titre d'anglicisant. Il semblait, alors, n'avoir qu'une connaissance assez quelconque de l'anglais et il ne pouvait traduire des textes sans aide. Lors de ces visites, il m'ecoutait lire un texte et le traduire. Il reprenait la traduction, suggerant tel mot, telle tournure. C'est dans la lecture de la traduction obtenue qu'on sentait une ame de feu, un grand acteur.... Il me rapportait les textes ecrits de sa main, d'une ecriture ample, reguliere. (43)
In this scene of translation, interpretation is key: as the chaplain reads the English text and translates it (that is, extracts its meaning), Artaud assists the translation (that is, the performance) by listening, reprising, and in turn reinterpreting the chaplain's original interpretation-translation, therein manifesting his great actorly qualities. From a transmission of meaning, Artaud's interpretation takes the form of a performance that negotiates the ear, the voice, and the hand in a poetic rewriting of an unfamiliar foreign- language text. Contrary to what Anne Tomiche characterizes as Ferdiere's intention to silence and "castrate" Artaud's voice by giving him works to translate (31-32), the very premise on which Artaud's therapeutic translation was built was intended to give the voice a prominent role. It was therefore essentially theatrical.
Understanding the theatrical dimension inherent in Artaud's translation, in conjunction with Artaud's own comments on his role as Carroll's translator, sheds an entirely new light on the very nature of his translative act--one that turns around his conception of the theater as "cruelty." On the one hand, it becomes apparent that the type of translation Artaud rejected was akin to the type of theater he was working to destroy--via his notion of the Theater of Cruelty. (6) His negative comments on translation are in fact associated with the image of a director who reads off a script, in a theater that is based on derivation from a preexisting text: (7) just as the theater will be able to renew itself only when it stops being tied to the chains of language, so will translation lose its ancillary status once it branches out into the performative dimension that is implied in the French term interpreter.
On the other hand, the conjunction of Artaud's practice of translation and his reflections on the theater reframes the reading of his obscure utterances as the delirious ravings of a madman through the lens of a methodical systematization of breath, destined to perform "a kind of emotional and moral surgery upon consciousness" (Sontag xxxvi). Just as the theater of cruelty is subtended by a rigorously calculated and directed codification of the bodily cry, (8) so do those seemingly hermetic syllables that emerge through Artaud's translation-interpretation bear with them the mark of a precise program for the transformation of language--intended to establish what Derrida calls "une grammaire universelle de la cruaute" (L'ecriture et la Difference 287).
On the scene of interpretation, Artaud is no longer a patient confined within the walls of Rodez: rather, he assumes the roles of both the actor and the director, both the patient to be cured and the physician who is administering the cure, taking Carroll's text to a paroxysmal crisis point that can only be described as a "cruel" translation. As such, his injection of invented words and hermetic syllables into the body of French becomes the very "plague" intended to jolt and shock the reader out of complacency, both the malady and its remedy--"un fleau vengeur," "une epidemie salvatrice" (Artaud, OEuvres 521).
The concept of cruel translation not only reveals the extent to which Artaud's hermetic syllables belong to a systematic program intended to renew language by taking it to its crisis point, but also poses the question of verbal invention as both a linguistic and an existential problem. Cruelty is central to the translative process. On a superficial level, this is obvious if we look at what Artaud does to Carroll's text: a progressive butchering of the original language that is evident not only in the subtitle that Artaud gives his text (Tentative anti-grammaticale a propos de Lewis Carroll et contre lui) but also in the practice of translation itself. Indeed, this is a practice that transforms pleasant-sounding words such as the Carrollian "gimble" or "wabe" (187) into unpronounceable clusters of guttural consonants: "brimbulkdriquant" and "rouarghe a rangmbde et rangmbde a rouarghambde" (Artaud, OEuvres 922). These indicators of cruelty, which Artaud calls "mots a soufflet," achieve their anti-grammatical disruption by eliminating all morphosyntactic indications. In Carroll's original, the pseudo-semantic nonsense-words retain a syntactic and grammatical function within their English context of use; the morphosyntax of the words "gimble" and "wabe" allows us to recognize their grammatical function as a verb and a noun, respectively ("the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe"). (9) The same cannot be said of Artaud's syllabic clusters (with the exception perhaps of the ostensible gerund "en brimbulkdriquant," which is nevertheless problematic--the phonological rules of the French language do not allow such an overloaded juxtaposition of consonants).
The above comments must be qualified by considering two interrelated points: first, Artaud's "mots a soufflet" are themselves translations of invented words (which, we must not forget, Artaud believed to be plagiarized versions of his own invented language)--this is significant because it raises the question of the relationship between cruelty and linguistic invention. Second, these so-called words intervene in the text as moments of interruption of an otherwise, and for the most part, readable French. If it is possible to read and understand L'Arve et VAume by circumventing the syllabic clusters, such a reading, however, would fail to recognize the degree to which these clusters affect the rest of the text. The syntactically incoherent and anti-grammatical translations of these invented words contaminate the French language that surrounds them--as we can see, for instance, in the multiplication of guttural consonants within the following sentence: "C'est une grotte, enfant, une grotte et garrotte, un garrot" (920), where three terms are used to translate Carroll's simpler phrase, "It's a cravat, child" (185). (10) Artaud's "mots a soufflet" would thus constitute what Deleuze sees as the "souffle psychotique" or "vent de folie" that passes through language, threatening to carry it off as a whole (93)--an image that finds echoes in a formulation by Derrida, which describes the results of this contamination as a strange form of untranslatability: "Chaque syllabe de francais y est aussi intraduisible que la glossopoiese qui semble les interrompre" (Artaud le Moma 23). Untranslatability is thus the end result of the cruelty of translation: it derives from the blurring of the boundaries between what is grammatical and what is not, between what is an acceptable linguistic invention and what is illegal plagiarism. The precise nature of the untranslatability that derives from the blurring of these boundaries can only be understood by analyzing in depth the relationship between cruelty and invention.
The conditions of this relationship emerge from a definition given by Artaud of the term cruaute. In the "Lettres sur la cruaute" (1932), in Le Theatre et son double, Artaud writes:
Ce mot de cruaute doit etre pris dans un sens large, et non dans le sens materiel et rapace qui lui est prete habituellement. Et je revendique, ce faisant, le droit de briser avec le sens usuel du langage, de rompre une bonne fois l'armature, de faire sauter le carcan, d'en revenir enfin aux origines etymologiques de la langue qui a travers des concepts abstraits evoquent toujours une notion concrete. (OEuvres 566)
By proclaiming the "right" to break with the common usage of words in order to access the etymological origins of language and, therefore, the concrete notion that abstract language tends to obfuscate, Artaud was already engaging, in 1932, with Humpty Dumpty's reflection on the possibility of assigning meanings to words--which is, as we have mentioned, a central tenet of nonsense literature, and one that turns on the problem of inventing language. However, in associating verbal invention with the concreteness of language, and thereby its conjunction with the suffering body (11) (a conjunction that informs Artaud's work, from the correspondence with Riviere onward), Artaud was implicitly rejecting Carroll's self-contained and conservative play with words. In fact, Artaud's initial appreciation for Carroll rapidly turns sour, ending up in accusations of opportunism, cowardice, and plagiarism: Carroll is denounced as "un snob anglais," "un profiteur qui a voulu intellectuellement se repaitre [...] de la douleur d'autrui," "un lache qui n'a pas voulu souffrir son oeuvre avant de l'ecrire" (OEuvres 1014). These accusations bring to the fore the importance of suffering in the process of writing, a concept that dominates the final section of L'Arve et l'Aume. In translating a poem that Humpty Dumpty recites to Alice on the topic of the little fishes of the sea (a poem in which verbal invention is surprisingly absent), Artaud transforms the story into a reflection on the relationship between being and suffering, inserting a series of stanzas that are not in the original--"Celui qui n'est pas ne sait pas, / L'obeissant ne souffre pas. / C'est a celui qui est a savoir / Pourquoi l'obeissance entiere / Est ce qui n'a jamais souffert / Lorsque l'Etre est ce qui s'effrite / Comme la masse de la mer [. . .]" (OEuvres 925).
Suffering is integral to Artaud's reflection on language, and it holds a central role in his conception of how verbal invention can occur. In a letter to Henri Parisot on the subject of his translation of Carroll, Artaud explains that inventing one's language is possible only if it comes from a place of great suffering and lack, where the self-consciousness of the lack is not the guiding factor in the language that describes it but the lack itself:
On peut inventer sa langue et faire parler la langue pure avec un sens hors grammatical mais il faut que ce sens soit valable en soi, c'est-a-dire qu'il vienne d'affre,--affre cette vieille serve de peine, ce sexe de carcan enfoui qui sort ses vers de sa maladie: l'etre, et ne supporte pas qu'on l'oublie. (OEuvres 1014)
Artaud distinguishes here between an individual's prerogative to invent his own language and the right to make "pure language" speak with a meaning that is "outside" of grammar: in both cases, what is at stake is the origin of meaning--suffering and malady, the indelible mark of being. In anchoring "pure language" (here understood as language pushed outside of its grammatical ties) to the physical experience of suffering, Artaud is making a deeper claim about the relationship between malady and language, one that allows us to come closer to understanding his conception of untranslatability. More pointedly, his comments are revealing of an intrinsic connection between grammatical instability, suffering, and madness within the process of translation itself.
Walter Benjamin suggests such a connection, in characterizing translation as that which is "charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own" (18). Here, the suffering that translation gives rise to is primarily linguistic; (12) its significance can be gauged by exploring what happens on both syntactic and semantic levels to languages during the very process of translation. Benjamin's provocative conception of translation as a "literal rendering of the syntax" (21)--a prescription that has been crystallized in the formula "syntax over semantics"--posits a way of thinking about meaning that is essentially syntactical, whereby semantics becomes a question of creating syntactical bonds. Binding is the pivotal mechanism that conjoins "what is meant" (which is the same universally) and "the way of meaning" (which is unique to every language): objects and concepts are bound up with individual words and to a particular way of being-meant, and this process of binding is both syntactical and singular. (13) Given that syntax, as we noted earlier, prevents language from going mad, what happens when the bond is loosened?
Benjamin refers to this phenomenon by way of explaining why translations are themselves untranslatable: translations "prove to be untranslatable not because of any inherent difficulty, but because of the looseness with which meaning clings to them" (23). This suggests that the very process of translation is one that produces a certain degree of untranslatability--that is, a progressive loosening of the syntactical-semantic bonds that guaranteed the singularity of the original work. Here, untranslatability is inherently related to Benjamin's mysterious notion of "pure language"--that which results from the "supplementation" of all languages and which "no longer means or expresses anything but is [...] that which is meant in all languages" (22). If pure language is believed to emerge from the process of translation itself, and if translation leads toward untranslatability because of how it progressively loosens the original's bonds, it would appear that the looseness of binding that defines the condition of untranslatability is also a defining characteristic of pure language itself. The notion of pure language for Benjamin (as for Artaud) would thus inevitably be tied up with the process of making language go mad that occurs as the result of putting pressure on syntactical-semantic bonds. It is not surprising, then, that Benjamin was interested in Holderlin's mad or "monstrous" (21) translations of Sophocles's plays: these translations, which aspire to syntactical literalness, risk complete semantic incoherence because, in attempting to remain faithful to the syntax of the original Greek, they push against the limits of what is syntactically (and thereby semantically) acceptable in German.
In the light of these considerations, we must ask ourselves what the status is of Artaud's untranslatable translation. How are we to understand the madness that emerges from this practice? Does it result in senselessness and, ultimately, silence, or does it take language off into another direction and become productive of new meanings? If translation, as Derrida notes in his commentary on Benjamin's essay, treads a path "au bord de l'abime, de la folie, et du silence" ("Des Tours" 247), and if, because of the type of relationship to language it establishes, it entails existential and linguistic suffering, what kind of therapy could it possibly offer?
Melodic Rhythm and Cacophonous Cry
The contradiction between two conceptions of translation--translation as suffering that leads to the madness of untranslatability and translation as a therapy for both self and language--is a contradiction that we find reflected in the dialogue between the text of L'Arve et l'Aume and the letters that surround it. On the one hand, the letters offer a conception of language as incantatory rhythm by describing the originals that Carroll's nonsense-words presumably plagiarize; on the other hand, the text proposes a cacophony of guttural cries, which are presented as the actual translations of Carroll's nonsensewords. These back-translations, however, are very different in nature from the proposed originals: while this is perhaps indicative of the divide between theoretical reflection and practical application, the relationship between these different linguistic forms allows us to understand how translation could be both an activity that is conducive to madness and a therapeutic tool.
In the letters that denounce Carroll's plagiarism, Artaud describes his own invented language as a universal language that would be beyond and before translation: a pre-Babelian language that would be accessible to the post-Babelian world of mutually unintelligible languages. Artaud claims to have written a book in such an invented language, under the title Letura d'Eprahi Falli Tetar Fendi Photia o Fotre Indi--unfortunately the book was lost under mysterious circumstances and all that remains of it is an illegal plagiarized imitation, Carroll's "Humpty Dumpty." In order to reclaim his name as the original inventor, Artaud provides a few examples of this lost language and explains the nature and function of the syllables:
Voici quelques essais de langage auxquels le langage de ce livre ancien devait ressembler. Mais on ne peut les lire que scandes, sur un rythme que le lecteur lui-meme doit trouver pour comprendre et pour penser: ratara ratara ratara atara tatara rana otara otara katara otara ratara kana ortura ortura konara kokona kokona koma [...]
mais cela n'est valable que jailli d'un coup; cherche syllabe a syllabe cela ne vaut plus rien, ecrit ici cela ne dit rien et n'est plus que de la cendre; pour que cela puisse vivre ecrit il faut un autre element qui est dans ce livre qui s'est perdu. (OEuvres 1015-16)
These traces of Artaud's lost language are particularly striking because the very existence of this language and the meaning that it creates are dependent on the individual's ability to find an internal rhythm. Without the reader, this invented language turns to dust because the individual subject must incorporate the invented syllables in his own suffering body. This language is incantatory and magical, liberated from syntactical constraints; it comes close to pure sound (which is arguably another way of understanding what Artaud means by the expression "pure language") and, therefore, cannot be subjected to translation. If this language is untranslatable, its untranslatability derives from the fact that it does not need to be translated in order to be understood or to constitute a vehicle for understanding: the melodic and magical clusters of syllables produce a rhythm that gestures toward a Kabbalistic reconnection with the world (14) and enables the reader to understand his place in relation to himself and others.
Conversely, the back-translations that appear within the text of L'Arve et l'Aume propose a different model of untranslatability, one that seems to work against all forms of understanding. The reader's lack of understanding is not only referred to explicitly by the translator--as we saw in the note appended to the translation of the title of the poem "Jabberwocky"--but also exacerbated by a confrontation with Artaud's rendition of the first stanza of the poem:
Il etait Roparant, et les vliqueux tarands Allaient en gilroyant et en brimbulkdriquant Jusque-la ou la rourghe est a rouarghe a rangmbde et rangmbde a rouarghambde: Tous les falomitards etaient les chats-huants Et les Ghore Uk'hatis dans le GRABUG-EUMENT. (OEuvres 922)
The overload of consonants produces guttural sounds that remain caught in the throat of their utterer. Thus, they are closer to constituting a private utterance that is incommunicable and untranslatable; but unlike the magical syllables that are untranslatable because they do not need to be translated-- insofar as their meaning lies in their performance and in the reader's ability to pronounce them--these so-called words are untranslatable because they resist all forms of readability and vocalization. Contrary to the invented syllables that infuse life into the soul that finds a rhythmic echo to them, we are confronted by cacophonous screams that tear asunder the nuts and bolts of language. (15)
From these comments, we are confronted with two opposing characterizations of Artaud's language, which, in turn, imply two conceptions of untranslatability: on the one hand, language as the melodious utterance that aspires to a nonverbal connection with the outside world and that is untranslatable because it does not need to be translated; on the other hand, language as the cacophonous scream that encloses its utterer within the walls of his private idiom and that is untranslatable because it is physically unreadable. Significantly, the cacophonous and guttural consonants constitute the translations of Carroll's nonsense-words, whereas the melodious syllables are the imitations of Artaud's lost originals. Consequently, it would seem that the process of translation is that which renders a universally readable language unreadable, transforming what is other into one's own--thus enacting an exercise in appropriative and "cruel" domestication that risks destroying the original language. Yet, in domesticating the foreign language, Artaud is also foreignizing his own language and his relationship to it, not only by disrupting his grammatically correct French with morphologically and syntactically unrecognizable structures, but also by unfurling the suffering that, as we have seen, inheres in the very practices of translation and of linguistic invention. In the process of foreignizing French, then, it is hard to ascertain what Artaud's dual conception of untranslatability achieves in terms of linguistic renewal, beyond the walls of the asylum in which he is immured.
Carroll's "Humpty Dumpty," the disputed source text, provides us with some guidance for attempting to resolve the problem. This text exemplifies and enacts the very struggle between the risk of idiolectal babble and the pedagogical integration of the child into the laws of adult grammar--a struggle that encapsulates our difficulty in characterizing Artaud's conception of untranslatability (either as the submersion into the guttural scream or as the liberation of language through glossolalie rhythm). Flumpty Dumpty's idiosyncratic explanations of invented words raise the possibility of a breakdown in communication when one party assigns its own meaning to a given word--this is, for instance, the case with the word "glory," to which Flumpty Dumpty attributes the meaning of "a nice knock-down argument" (Carroll 186), thereby confounding his interlocutor Alice. Indeed, nonsense, as a genre, can be thought of as constituting a discourse of the margins and on the margins that explores the murky passage of the child into the order of the symbolic, with all the risks of error and miscommunication that are inherent in the very process of language-learning. Artaud, in his re-appropriative translation of nonsense-writing, takes the genre of nonsense to its crisis point by redefining not only what it means for the individual subject to speak, but also what forms communal language can take.
This is evidenced by how Carroll and Artaud respectively explore the ways in which characters communicate. In Carroll's version, Alice remains skeptical of Humpty Dumpty's claim to verbal mastery. By exclaiming, "The question is [...] whether you can make words mean so many different things" (186), this young Victorian child upholds the rules of correct linguistic usage, denouncing the illegal nature of Humpty Dumpty's experiments with language. Conversely, Artaud's Alice enters in dialogue with Dodu Mafflu (the name Artaud chooses for Humpty Dumpty) by participating in his game of verbal creativity and inventing words of her own: "La question est de savoir [...] si vous avez le pouvoir de faire dire aux mots tant de choses equidistantes, multiples et bourriglumpies de variantes infinies" (OEuvres 921, my emphasis). Artaud's treatment of nonsense pushes into the domain of the potential error, the linguistic invention that undoes the structures of recognizable language, but which at the same time engenders and maintains a mode of communication beyond conventional linguistic forms. Artaud's Alice thus appears to be a much more receptive interlocutor than Carroll's Alice, who, in her effort to make sense of the idiosyncratic characters she meets in Wonderland, always strives to respect the correct rules of conversation that inform polite Victorian society.
In subjecting Carroll's nonsense to the "cruelty" of translation, Artaud is pushing the limits not only of how we communicate through language but also of what such a conception of communication implies. In loosening the bonds of syntax via the very process of translation, Artaud's poetics of untranslatability liberates a form of madness in language that stretches it toward its a-syntactic limits, but that, in doing so, calls attention to the very conditions that render language possible. (16) Between the private idiom and the possibility of shared communication, Artaud explores the elusive place that conjoins pre-linguistic babble and post-linguistic apocalypse, a state in between human and divine that calls into play the life, death, and afterlife of both language and the speaker.
Conclusion: Beyond the Asylum
The nature of the "madness" in Artaud's language is thus both inward-and outward-looking: it promotes what Derrida calls an "almost'Manguage (L'ecriture et la Difference 352), one that involves both the individual learning to speak (parole) and the communal structures of language (langue). This outward-looking movement is confirmed if we observe that both Artaud's idiosyncratic language and Carroll's nonsense derive from a conception of language in decomposition and crisis and reveal profound connections with the respective sociohistorical factors that foster their appearance.
In commenting on the motivations that led him to invent his magical language in 1934, Artaud relates the notion of linguistic consumption--"la consommation interne de la langue" (OEuvres 1015)--to the pervasive sense of turmoil and degeneration that characterized the interwar period. This sentiment was exacerbated during the war itself, when chaos and cacophony were felt by many poets and writers to be the only appropriate responses to a world in crisis. Indeed, this consonance with the times is what Artaud initially appreciated about Carroll's text, as he writes to Ferdiere: "Et je comprends que l'idee vous soit venue de remettre le livre de Lewis Carroll en vogue. Cela certes est du pur humour! le rapport entre sa poesie intrinseque et le desordre, la cacophonie incroyable qui sont au fond des evenements que nous vivons" (Nouveaux Ecrits de Rodez 65). Carroll's writing and his humor are deemed to be timely because they reveal the extent to which the disarticulation of language responds to a world in crisis. Artaud was not the only one to pick up on this connection, as is shown by Andre Breton's choice to include Carroll in his Anthologie de l'humour noir (originally published in 1939). Carroll's writing was thought to illustrate the meaning of black humor, defined by Breton as "une revolte superieure de l'esprit" (Anthologie 12), because his aesthetic program--in echoing poetic practices developed around the same time by Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Lautreamont on the other side of the Channel--derived from a need to react, "de facon draconienne," against what Breton called "la depreciation du langage" (Manifestes 179).
Yet, if nonsense-writing emerged from the need to combat the perceived and pervasive crisis of language and culture of the European fin-de-siecle, the degree of its success appears to be put into question by its easy accessibility. George Steiner, in After Babel, dismisses Carroll's "Jabberwocky," and, more broadly, the entire genre of literary nonsense, on the grounds that it is too easily translatable, as can be seen by the numerous translations over the years of the Alice books; indeed, he claims, "It draws too readily on counters of feeling and of imagery long-established in the sound-associations of English or any other public speech" (197). Conversely, Steiner praises those experiments in neologism performed by Russian futurists, Dada, surrealists, and lettristes, which cultivate a form of untranslatability that veers toward private and idiolectal forms of expression. The measure of success in renewing language, according to Steiner, lies in the extent to which these experiments maintain a balance between a hermetic and untranslatable idiolect on the one hand, and the cliched communal shared forms of language on the other. Or, as Steiner puts it, "The problem consists in locating the point at which contingent, increasingly private signals cease emitting any coherent stimulus or any stimulus to which there could be a measure of agreed, repeatable response" (206).
Within this context, then, Artaud's untranslatable translation of Carroll's nonsense would constitute a more effective tool for the renovation of language because it defies the conventional linguistic structures we use to communicate while also resisting the pitfalls of the silence of solipsism. In other words, linguistic renewal occurs through a poetics of untranslatability that treads the fine line between the hermeticism of the private scream and the melodious flow of publicly repeatable syllables. Artaud's cries would thus have accomplished that redefinition of our language that Foucault calls for in La folie, l'absence d'oeuvre: "Artaud appartiendra au sol de notre langage, et non a sa rupture" (412). Yet, what is the nature of the linguistic renewal afforded by such a literary practice of untranslatability? And to what extent does Artaud's supposed success in renewing language cohere with the therapeutic program assigned to translation by his doctors?
Artaud's practice of translating untranslatably (17) allows us to sketch a possible resolution to the contradiction we found ourselves facing with regard to translation's relationship with madness (that is, both as its origin and as its therapy) as well as providing us with a more precise understanding of the term. In the context of the practice of translation, madness constitutes a rupturing of language that takes the form of syntactical dissolution and grammatical instability; thus, to the extent that translation entails the disruption of language via a progressive loosening of syntactic bonds (because languages are not syntactically interchangeable), it also entails a certain degree of linguistic madness. If translation can thus be conceived of as a process of rupture or disruption of language, it would seem unlikely to provide any form of therapy: this is because rupturing and disrupting imply breaking "apart" or breaking "away" from something; a movement of loss or relegation to the margins that fails to encourage any dialogue that might put into question the limits that typically separate the norm from what falls outside of it.
Yet, translation is also a process of interrupting language. Insofar as interruption is that which breaks "in-between," it creates a tension between moments of linguistic idiosyncrasy and moments of grammatical clarity: Artaud's translation is never language gone awry, and the guttural cries intervene in the text by interrupting grammatically correct French sentences. The process of interrupting language is what reveals the suffering of the translation process--a suffering that is inherent to the movement by which language can be pushed outside of its grammatical ties and thus rendered mad. But because Artaud's conception of language (and, thereby, our understanding of his madness) is never far removed from his suffering body, the contamination that occurs between idiolectal clusters and correct linguistic forms defines both the process of therapy and the program for linguistic renewal.
L'Arve et l'Aume, in offering itself both as a gateway for the liberation of the madness of language and as a therapy to language gone mad, draws our attention to the status of the interruption of language. These moments of interruption are the punctuations of language that the schizophrenic mind needs in order to buttress the loss of thought and self by which it is plagued (what is referred to as "fuite des idees," a condition that forms the basis for Artaud's self-diagnosis in his Correspondance avec Jacques Riviere); they are the safeguard (or garde--fou) that keeps his language from being lost. As such, they function much like the nonsense-text in relation to the language of madness: rather than being the signs of his incurable malady, they are the traces of the process Artaud goes through in order to save his language and himself from going mad--that is, from losing both his being and his language--while also revealing the suffering inherent in madness itself.
It becomes clear now how Artaud's renewal of language has far-reaching effects, both with regard to his personal experience and with regard to the reception of his work. Interrupting language carries the risk of complete disarticulation, but it is also that which allows us to feel most alive; it is the Freudian parapraxis--that which, by breaking through the veneer of everyday speech, reveals to us the internal and unsuspected functioning of our unconscious; it is also the "suffering of being" that, as Beckett says of Proust (19), emerges from the rupture of habit and habitual patterns according to which we structure our daily lives, but which, in the long term, prevent us from feeling life in its most intense form. In resisting Artaud's language, we fail to understand that to challenge language is to redefine not only what communication means but also how we come to know and understand ourselves and each other. And because understanding someone is not the same as understanding what they say or what they write, the challenge Artaud constantly throws back at us--crystallized in that incisive question "as tu compris?," which he appends to his back-translation of the "Jabberwocky"-- is not whether we have understood his language, but whether we have understood what is involved in the very process of understanding him, ourselves, and others. Answering that challenge, then, requires much more from the reader than either deciphering perceived hidden meanings or bypassing any resistant elements that may present themselves on the page; rather, it implies coming to terms with the suffering inherent in any relationship to language and understanding to what extent the process of carving out one's space in language is precariously balanced between the need for invention and the risk of disarticulation. (18)
Trinity College, Dublin
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(1.) In an interview with Sylvere Lotringer, Ferdiere comments, "On y reconnaissait l'autisme a certaines tournures de phrase, a certaines formes stylistiques. Pour ceux qui connaissent les debuts des episodes schizophreniques, il y a un petit relent de quelque chose.... Relisez les poemes dans ces lettres, parce que c'est capital" (qtd. in Lotringer 227).
(2.) Ferdiere remarks that Artaud's mysterious syllables are utterly hermetic formulae, the appearance of which was "un signe d'aggravation, un signe de defaillance" (qtd. in Lotringer 249) that represented a tendency on the patient's part to sink into the depths of his own illness.
(3.) "Containment" refers to the fact that literary nonsense establishes a self-enclosed linguistic universe that is highly structured. As Michael Holquist notes, "Nonsense, like gibberish, is a violence practiced on semantics. But since it is systematic, the sense of nonsense can be learned. And this is the value of it: it calls attention to language" (114).
(4.) Denis Hollier uses the term "barbarian" to refer to the literary practice of authors such as Artaud, Celine, Michaux, Leiris, Ponge, Bataille, and Queneau: "Dans leur volonte de faire chuter la valeur d'echange, ils avaient pousse la culture de l'idiolecte jusqu'au terrorisme, voire au barbarisme" (1025-26).
(5.) This lack of linguistic knowledge, while not preventing him from translating Matthew Gregory's The Monk in 1931 or Shelley's The Cenci in 1935, is revealing of how Artaud perceived his own translations: these are described alternately as a French copy of the original English (OEuvres 351), an "adaptation-variation" of a given theme (913), and a rightful recuperation of a plagiarized original (927).
(6.) "Le Theatre de la Cruaute a ete cree pour ramener au theatre la notion d'une vie passionnee et convulsive; et c'est dans ce sens de rigueur violente, de condensation extreme des elements sceniques qu'il faut entendre la cruaute sur laquelle il veut s'appuyer" (Artaud, OEuvres 580).
(7.) "Celui qui n'est qu'un artisan, un adaptateur, une sorte de traducteur eternellement voue a faire passer une ceuvre dramatique d'un langage dans un autre" (qtd. in Derrida, L'Ecriture et la Difference 277).
(8.) "La cruaute est avant tout lucide, c'est une sorte de direction rigide, la soumission a la necessite" (Artaud, OEuvres 566).
(9.) This is what allows the reader to get the gist of the poem without necessarily understanding the meaning of each word--as Alice herself remarks: "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't know exactly what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate" (Carroll 134).
(10.) This passage is significant also for its play on semantic ambiguity. In Carroll's original, Humpty Dumpty dispels Alice's confusion as to the nature of his clothing (a cravat or a belt?) by simply calling it a cravat. Conversely, Artaud disseminates the ambiguity from the object to the words that describe it--the term grotte could refer to the nether regions of the body, garrot refers to the neck, and garotte is a lexical invention of Artaud's that is phonologically close to garrotte, an instrument of torture placed around a victim's neck.
(11.) Artaud posits an essential connection between the body in pain and language through the very etymology of the term cruaute: from the proto-Indo-European krewe("raw flesh"), he retains the image of the "flayed man" (Selected Writings 506) in conjunction with the guttural consonant "k"--which Allen Weiss sees as the trademark of Artaud's glossolalia (153).
(12.) Paul de Man, in commenting on the passage from Benjamin, oscillates between claiming that this suffering is purely linguistic (and, hence, does not pertain to the individual subject) and expressing a highly personal suffering in his response to the jarring contrast between the German word "Brot" and its French equivalent "pain": "I was very happy with the word Brot, which I hear as a native because my native language is Flemish and you say brood, just like in German, but if I have to think that Brot [brood] and pain are the same thing, I get very upset" (87).
(13.) See Samuel Weber's comments on Benjamin's notion of binding (73-75).
(14.) See Evelyne Grossman's definition of Artaud's conception of magic: "La magie est donc pour lui un lien, une puissance de 'communication' a la redoutable efficacite. Elle seule sans doute peut guerir cette 'penible scission,' cette rupture entre les choses et les mots, les idees et les signes, cette separation entre la culture et la vie--cette petrification mortifere qu'Artaud voit partout a l'ceuvre dans le monde occidental" (Artaud and Grossman 6).
(15.) This opposition is, in fact, most apparent in Artaud's radio play Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu, where the screams in the stairwell have the effect of reproducing the anguish of the cry within the walls of the asylum.
(16.) Deleuze explores the notion of literature as that which pushes language toward its "asyntactic" and "agrammatical" limits and identifies three ways in which Artaud's writing achieves this: "La chute des lettres dans la decomposition du langage maternel (R, T ...); leur reprise dans une nouvelle syntaxe ou de nouveaux noms a portee syntaxique, createurs d'une langue ("eTReTe"); les mots-souffles enfin, limite asyntaxique ou tend tout le langage" (16).
(17.) Emily Apter uses the expression "translating untranslatably," which she glosses as "a kind of overtranslation that embraces wild infidelity to the original and pushes the envelope of translatability" (177).
(18.) An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Modern France Workshop at the University of Chicago. Thanks to the participants. Thanks also to Emily Apter, Denis Hollier, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, and Richard Sieburth for helpful feedback.
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|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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