February 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

I reflect on life. All the systems I may erect never will match these cries of a man engaged in remaking his life.

~ From “Situation of the Flesh” in Artaud Anthology

The Theatre & its Double was compiled in 1938 of diverse texts Antonin Artaud had written in the seven preceding years. Notable contents include: the infamous lecture “Theatre & the Plague”, delivered at the Sorbonne on 6th April 1933; the call to arms of “No More Masterpieces”, composed before 1934; & the two manifestos to the theatre of cruelty from 1932 & 1933. Cruelty accompanied him for over seventeen years — to his death, in fact, in the Hospice d’Ivry psychiatric ward in 1948. His conception of cruelty is closely associated with the act of screaming. These twin & reactionary functions, the intellectual response & the physical expulsion, howl at one another until they ultimately harmonise their voices in 1947 for Histoire vécue d’Artaud-Mômo, a live attempt at an unprecedented biography dependant on the inventions in one’s life. The spectators were so unresponsive that Artaud would soon after write to André Breton, “the only language I could use on an audience was to take bombs out of my pockets & throw them in their faces in a gesture of unmistakable aggression” (Anthology 183). The language of explosives is, if desperate, affective.

The scream was significant early in Artaud’s career — through his ties to the surrealist movement, for which he acted secretary — & it informs all his work. Especially, he finds it an alternative to unfree language which has been perverted into an elusive uncommunicative system. What they did to life, humanity has done also to the tools of life: “mankind does not want to take the trouble to live, to take part in the spiritual elbowing of the forces that make up reality, in order to pluck a body from them so that no tempest could ever again harm it. It has preferred mere existence” (Anthology 157). The significance of the body for verbal communication is at its height in form of the scream — a form of virtually universal expression, an exclamation or interruption that signifies not as a lingual or cultural code but as the code of base humanity.

Viewed through the gaze of structuralism, a set of conflicting pairs have been developed that are all evocations of the “schism” Artaud has in mind:

— Signifier                        — Signified
— Language                      — Screaming
— False reality                   — Essence
— Surface spectacle           — The unconscious

These pairs run on parallel planes, one that is the functional symbol of reality — what I call world-affirming, after Wilhelm Worringer* — & the other which represents a wizened truth — world-negating. Together, they shape a disillusioned society, only half awake & half alive. Artaud imagines only a violent awakening can save — a twilight shriek. As long as the heart is beating, there is life; & to make the heart beat faster is to affirm life. It is a commonly neglected fact that, often, the more gruesome or morbid a piece of art, the more life affirming it is: the source-thought of art as therapy. Artaud’s proposed theatre is a humanitarian medicine, understandably difficult to swallow but a necessary prescription.

Frequently, Artaud compares the symbolic & veritable divide (as per above table) to that of sanity & madness (cf. previous post), most eloquently in his portrait of Van Gogh, “The Man Suicided by Society”. Here he insists “What is a genuine lunatic? / He is a man who prefers to go mad, in the social sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain higher idea of human honour” (Anthology 137). That is, definitions, as they are constructed by society, should not infringe on one’s devotion to an instinctual primal truth. I have no desire to assess the authenticity of Artaud’s disease, of which there is much talk. My objective is to introduce the trend of associating Artaud’s works to his life & to suggest a possible reading of madness in his writing. If Artaud is to be taken by the hand it is not because he is a lunatic who needs to be escorted off stage, it is because there is a leap of faith to be made.

Intellectual engagement with Artaud’s writing readily understands The Theatre & its Double as his uncontended masterwork. It wills itself to be to theatre what Galileo, Kepler, or Hubble were at their respective times to astronomy. The first readers were sceptical of his prophetic assurances & tended to study his work as that of a psychiatric hospital patient. In time, we have learnt as readers that the theatre of cruelty is not best considered in theatrical terms — indeed, a refined theatre of cruelty seems to be impossible as exhibited by the theoretical (& critical) failures of Peter Brook’s Season of Cruelty (1964, Royal Shakespeare Company) & the Living Theatre improvisations (from 1947, based in New York City).

Such projects & the diverse criticism the unaccomplished theatre-producer was inspired by a reestablishment of interest in Artaud’s writings during the 1960s. [True to form, it was always a future audience that Artaud imagined writing to.] His ideas were organically complimentary to those of that time: an interest in non-Western & functional art, the expression of suffering, & an effectual dissatisfaction with order. Springing from this period is an influence on & engagement with theoretical giants such as Jacques Derrida, André Breton, Georges Batailles, & Susan Sontag. The last of these writes most generally, representing a common populist & intellectual view: that his works are “a vast collection of fragments. What he bequeathed was not achieved works of art but a singular presence, a poetics, an aesthetics of thought, a theology of culture, & a phenomenology of suffering” (“Approaching Artaud” 17). This singular presence is his own, or at least a fictional character he wrote for himself — his greatest work & truest self.


* Wilhelm Worringer describes a divide in two forms of art by means of their relationship to the world in Abstraction and Empathy — evident in the title — that which springs from abstraction (world-negating) and its double, empathy (world-affirming). [Michel Foucault distinguishes such a division in the eighteenth century in The Order of Things; he calls them “experimentalists” & “fixists” (127).]



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