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oxford modern languages
and literature monographs
Editorial Committee
c. h. griffin e. m. jeffreys a. kahn
k. m. kohl m. l. mclaughlin
i. w. f. maclean r. a. g. pearson

This page intentionally left blank

Morfee: Artaud’s Writing Bodies 00-Morfee-prelims Final Proof

page iii

29.6.2005 3:25pm

Antonin Artaud’s
Writing Bodies
ADRIAN MORFEE

CLARENDON PRESS

.

OXFORD

3

Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6dp
Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.
It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship,
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Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press
in the UK and in certain other countries
Published in the United States
by Oxford University Press Inc., New York
ß Adrian Morfee 2005
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
Excerpts from Antonin Artaud’s Oeuvres comple`tes ß Editions Gallimard
Database right Oxford University Press (maker)
First published 2005
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press,
or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate
reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction
outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department,
Oxford University Press, at the address above
You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover
and you must impose the same condition on any acquirer
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Data available
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Data available
Typeset by SPI Publisher Services, Pondicherry, India
Printed in Great Britain
on acid-free paper by
Biddles Ltd., King’s Lynn, Norfolk
ISBN 0–19–927749–4

978–0–19–927749–0

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

to Nathalie, of course

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to thank Editions Gallimard for permission to reproduce
extracts from Artaud’s Œuvres comple`tes. I also wish to thank the British
Academy for a Postgraduate Studentship, which helped fund the thesis
on which this work is based. I have received generous help from many
teachers, colleagues, and friends. I am particularly grateful to Dr Christina Howells, who supervised the thesis. Without the guidance, encouragement, wisdom, stimulus, and inspiration of Professor Malcolm Bowie,
who jointly supervised this work, it would never have been completed.
His beneWcial inXuence is present throughout. To him I am most deeply
grateful.

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CONTENTS
Notes on Texts and Abbreviations

x

Introduction

1

1.

Painful Bodies of Thought

20

2.

Self-Presence, Thought, and Language

49

3.

Angelic Bodies, Demonic Bodies

71

4.

Creating Identity and Meaning

97

5.

Writing Doubles

121

6.

A God-Ridden Artaud

150

7.

A Simple Artaud

173

Conclusion

206

Bibliography

221

Index

227

NOTES ON TEXTS AND ABBREVIATIONS
References to Antonin Artaud’s Œuvres comple`tes are given by volume and
page number in the main body of the text. The second revised edition is
used where one exists. Volumes i and xiv are each in two parts, designated * (part 1) and ** (part 2) by the publisher. Thus (i**. 9) refers to vol.
i, pt. 2, p. 9. In addition to the main nrf Gallimard series is Nouveaux ´ecrits
de Rodez, referred to as NER. Other references to uncollected texts are set
out in footnotes where appropriate. In capitalizing titles of Artaud’s
works I have in all cases followed the format of the Wrst edition.

en poe´sie nous avons des droits sur les paroles qui forment et de´font
l’Univers
(Apollinaire, Alcools)
Songez-y, un me´taphysicien n’a, pour le syste`me du monde, que le
cri perfectionne´ des singes
(Anatole France, Le Jardin d’E´picure)

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INTRODUCTION
Il faut faire les choses plus simplement et plus terre a` terre.
(xv. 218)
What can be thought of must certainly be a Wction.1

Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) was a man of many parts: his creative
intellect travelled across both generic and conceptual boundaries and
he was poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, actor, producer, theoretician
of the theatre, and artist. He has also been feˆted as a schizophrenic, druguser, and internee, and posthumously further roles were thrust upon him
as the following generation saw him as cultural iconoclast or as an
example of suVering, failure, and the descent of a great literary intellect
into madness. But all agree that his energies were channelled towards the
exploration and perhaps even the creation of the self within the artistic
act.
When Artaud died of cancer at the age of 51, he was a liminal Wgure in
the French artistic world. Scarcely known as an author other than to
those familiar with Surrealism, he was remembered as a minor actor,
having given remarkably intense supporting performances in Abel
Gance’s Napole´on (1927) and Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
(1928), and on the stage with inXuential theatre companies such as
Lugne´-Poe¨’s anti-naturalistic The´aˆtre de l’Œuvre and Dullin’s L’Atelier
in the early 1920s. With the poet Roger Vitrac he founded the short-lived
and controversial The´aˆtre Alfred Jarry in 1926, and, having seen a
Balinese dance troupe at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931, he
wrote an article on the performance now known under the title ‘Sur le
the´aˆtre balinais’. This was the Wrst of a series of essays setting out an
alternative to Western theatre, which were published in 1938 as Le
The´aˆtre et son Double, Artaud’s best-known work and one of the seminal
inXuences on modern drama.2
1
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale,
ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), para. 539.
2
For details of Wrst publications, as well as for full details of Artaud’s juvenilia, the reader
is referred to the extensive bibliography established by J.-C. Ramiel in Obliques, 10–11 (1976),
257–84.

2

introduction

However, Artaud was an original poet as he demonstrated with two
collections of self-analytic prose poems and fragmentary texts published
in the mid-1920s, L’Ombilic des Limbes and Le Pe`se-Nerfs. These inXuential
collections build on the autobiographical correspondence of 1923 with
Jacques Rivie`re now known, under the title Correspondance avec Jacques
Rivie`re, as one of the deWnitive discussions of a favoured topic of twentieth-century letters, literature, and silence. The force with which Artaud
here exposes how linguistic lack provokes a sense of ontological thinness
has led critics to see these early self-analyses as a displacement of the
centre of writing in his texts. It is certainly the point at which the adult
Artaudian text emerges from the preceding juvenilia, and after Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re Artaud abandoned the attempt to produce
self-suYcient, extended works and produced instead the characteristic
fragmented texts that, it is argued, seriously disrupt the limits of the
Modernist artistic and conceptual tradition and challenge the terms by
which we deWne a literary work. Certainly, all Artaud’s writing refuses
traditional genres and fuses modes; the most prominent forms are the
open-letter essay poem of early years and the poetic fantastic metaphysical diatribe of the late years, both highly rhetoricized. Frequently
Artaud incorporated letters into his works, destabilizing the relationship
of art to life. His 1920s texts are already exercises in imaginative metaphysical and linguistic hypothesizing—but, in common with the theoretical works of the leading Surrealist poets of his generation (Breton,
Aragon), the most striking quality of Artaud’s theorizings is their poetry.
In addition to his acting and poetry, he played a prominent role in the
Surrealist movement, which he joined in 1924, editing an issue of la
Re´volution surre´aliste. For an intense two-year period he energized the
movement, and his impassioned belief in the need to combat not just
cultural inertia but all that upheld orthodoxy and tradition accentuated
the darker side of the movement.
Although it was during the 1930s that Artaud was most closely engaged in theatrical activities, with which his name is now linked, over the
course of the decade he became an increasingly marginal Wgure. He
drifted away from the heart of Parisian cultural life, and, while French
intellectual debate was becoming increasingly concerned with contemporary politics, he became especially interested in esoteric and ancient
modes of knowledge. He´liogabale, an essayistic novel, retells the story of
the Roman Emperor of that name and Artaud’s alter ego within the
framework of ancient Phoenician solar religions and ideas drawn from
the alchemic tradition, and the oracular Les Nouvelles Re´ve´lations de l’Eˆtre is

introduction

3

explicitly an apocalyptic reading of Tarot cards. In 1936, following the
failure of his 1935 production of Les Cenci in which he had endeavoured to
realize his philosophy of theatre, and already in a highly excited state of
mind fuelled by increasingly large doses of opiates, he travelled to the
Mexican Sierra to take part in the sacred rituals of the Tarahumara
Indians. These involved the drug peyote and, to his eyes, were an
enactment of the theatrical principles he held dear. This trip inspired a
series of articles, written (and rewritten in the light of his Xuctuating
religious beliefs) between 1937 and the end of his life and published
posthumously as Les Tarahumaras, in which Artaud tells the story of his
visit as one of a frustrated metaphysical and mythic odyssey. On his
return to Europe in 1937, in a state of severe mental confusion, he
undertook a disastrous trip to Ireland to return to the Irish people
what he maintained to the end of his life was Saint Patrick’s cane
(actually an unusually carved cane given to him by a friend), and this
culminated in his deportation and internment, the last three years of
which were spent at the asylum of Rodez in the south-west of France.
Here he started writing compulsively, Wlling hundreds of notebooks
with Wctionalized retellings of his past and present life woven in with wild
theological imaginings. Nearly three-quarters of Artaud’s total output
(and all his tortured drawings) come from the Wve-year period between
his arrival at Rodez in 1943 and his death, and it is these surprisingly
under-discussed late writings that are the focal point of this study. In
1946, thanks to the inXuence and Wnancial support of a group of
friends—including the playwright Arthur Adamov, the director and
actor Roger Blin, and the young woman who was to become the editor
of Artaud’s Œuvres comple`tes and defendant of his cultural legacy, Paule
The´venin—he was transferred to a private asylum at Ivry-sur-Seine,
where he enjoyed near total independence. In the last two years of his
life he produced the major texts, including Suppoˆts et Suppliciations, Pour en
Wnir avec le jugement de dieu, Artaud le Moˆmo, and Ci-gıˆt pre´ce´de´ de la culture
indienne, and many more notebooks and uncollected poems, which have
interested recent theorists for their dissolution of dominant modes of
discourse and their expression of the fragmentation of the subject.
Artaud has become one of the cultural legends of the twentieth century.
During his lifetime Artaud published substantially less than half of the
textual material now available, rarely with the same editor, and only
three print runs exceeded 1,000 copies.3 Since his death the publication
3
The three were: Le The´aˆtre et son Double, Van Gogh, le suicide´ de la socie´te´, and Pour en Wnir avec
le jugement de dieu.

4

introduction

process has stalled on several occasions, and up until 1970 the only major
texts to exist in widely available and reliable editions were the Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re and Le The´aˆtre et son Double, a fact that does much
to explain their preponderance in Artaud criticism. With the appearance
of Suppoˆts et Suppliciations in 1978, all Artaud’s texts intended for publication were in the public domain, including many of his letters, which he
saw as integral to his work, and since then most of the many notebooks
Artaud Wlled from 1945 on have appeared. But some of the most characteristic and revelatory of Artaud’s Wnal texts, which appeared in small
circulation reviews, and which are widely known thanks to Jacques
Derrida’s ‘La Parole souZe´e’, remain virtually unobtainable.4 The only
exposure to what are arguably some of Artaud’s greatest Wnal texts is,
therefore, through the medium of scholarly articles that quote them
within the framework of their own argument, and this has led to a
reluctance to challenge, correct, or expand upon earlier readings.
Though the majority of Artaud’s writing is largely unread, his reputation as a leading Wgure in European Modernism is secure. Had he
published but Le The´aˆtre et son Double, Artaud’s position in the history of
French letters would have been assured. Together with the writings of
Bertolt Brecht, Artaud’s visionary writings on the theatre have long been
recognized as among the most fertile and vigorous inXuences on the
development of twentieth-century Western theatre, which Artaud condemns for its reliance on the text and on the conventions of plot and
character. Le The´aˆtre et son Double is a typically singular work, for it does
not set down theories (though Artaud does give explicit if impractical
technical instructions) but explores the function of theatre through the
extended development of images. He oVers an inspired, unclear, and in
fact impossible vision seeking to jump clear outside the logic of representation and signifying processes. Artaud’s essential theatre is compared
to the plague in that ‘comme la peste il est la re´ve´lation, la mise en avant,
la pousse´e vers l’exte´rieur d’un fond de cruaute´ latente’ (iv. 29), to Lucas
de Leyde’s painting Loth and his Daughters for its ‘langage physique [ . . . ]
mate´riel et solide’ (iv. 36), and to alchemy for a shared working-out of
underlying metaphysical principles through the manipulation of symbols
(iv. 46). For Artaud the essence of the theatrical performance is an
organized delirium that calls up the dark forces in humanity, to intensify
and thus exorcise them. At the heart of Artaud’s theatrical vision is the
idea that gestures, movement, colour, lighting, music, and the phonic
4

Only the Bibliothe`que Nationale in Paris holds all the material.

introduction

5

qualities of the voice should be revelatory of underlying metaphysical
forces, reXecting his lifelong belief in an immanent metaphysical unity
subtending reality but incompatible with linguistic expression.
Thanks to the breadth of material now available under the Gallimard
imprint, it would no longer be possible for a judicious critic to write: ‘Le
The´aˆtre et son Double, Antonin Artaud’s major theoretical work, to which
all his other writings are conWrmatory marginalia or addenda [ . . . ]’.5
The vestiges of some such attitude remain, however, and, whilst the rest
of Artaud’s writing might no longer be discarded so cavalierly, his ideas
on theatre have been the centre of enquiry for nine out of every ten
scholarly publications on his writings over the past thirty years. This is
out of all proportion: whilst all Artaud’s writing is profoundly inXuenced
by the idea of replacing representation with performance, which is at the
heart of his theatrical doctrines, this does not mean to say that his writing
in the domains of poetry or autobiography may be reduced to an
extrapolation of Le The´aˆtre et son Double.6 The fame of Le The´aˆtre et son
Double can still cramp critical exploration of the other twenty-Wve volumes of Artaud’s Œuvres comple`tes.
In this context it is worth recalling that Blanchot suggested Le The´aˆtre et
son Double is ‘rien d’autre qu’un Art poe´tique. Je reconnais qu’il y parle de
the´aˆtre, mais ce qui est en cause, c’est l’exigence de la poe´sie telle qu’elle
ne peut s’accomplir qu’en refusant des genres limite´s et en aYrmant un
langage plus originel.’7 Derrida disagrees with Blanchot here, arguing
that the theatre is the total art form for Artaud, citing: ‘La question pour
moi n’e´tait pas de savoir ce qui parviendrait a` s’insinuer dans les cadres
du langage e´crit, mais dans la trame de mon aˆme en vie’ (i*. 9).8
Blanchot’s suggestion is worth pursuing a little further, however. As
Derrida observes, it is the gestural dimension of language that is to be
privileged in the Theatre of Cruelty—sonority, intonation, and intensity—where the word-gestures are linked up by a syntax of bodily drives.
5
Eric Sellin, The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1968), 81. This fundamentally excellent work, together with the book by the philosopher
Henri Gouhier, Antonin Artaud et l’essence du the´aˆtre (Paris: Vrin, 1974), constitute the starting
point for those interested in Artaud’s theatrical ideas.
6
This is not to deny the very interesting application to which Artaud’s conception of
theatre has been put to read his other works, especially He´liogabale, a novelistic transposition
of many of the ideas of Le The´aˆtre et son Double. See e.g. Carol Jacob, ‘The Assimilating
Harmony: A Reading of Antonin Artaud’s He´liogabale’, Sub-Stance, 17 (1977), 115–38.
7
Maurice Blanchot, ‘La Cruelle Raison poe´tique’, Cahiers de la Compagnie Renand-Barrault,
22–3 (1958), 69.
8
Derrida discusses Blanchot in ‘La Parole souZe´e’, Tel quel, 20 (1965), 41–65. Repr. in
L’E´criture et la diVe´rence (Paris: Seuil, 1967), 253–92.

6

introduction

And it is precisely sonority, intonation, and intensity that characterize
Artaud’s poetry, where the syntax linking up the words is driven by oral
pleasure. To return to the line quoted by Derrida:
j 1 2
3
j 1 2 3 j1 2 j
j 1 2
3
j 1 2
3 j 1 2 j
j dans les cadres j du langage j e´crit j, [mais] j dans la trame j de mon aˆme j en vie j

what is striking is the heavily determined 3/3/2 rhythmic patterning where
the stress falls on the Wnal syllable, with this pattern reinforced by the dual
anaphora of ‘dans’ et ‘de’ and the internal rhymes and half-rhymes; and it is
surely not innocent that the line closes on envie (en vie), suggesting the
desiring bodily pulsions driving this text forward. It will be suggested here
that poetry becomes the space in which to enact the Theatre of Cruelty.
In addition to the work on his conception of the theatre, from the
1960s on Artaud’s reputation has been bound up with theoretical, mainly
post-structuralist readings presenting him (frequently alongside Bataille
and Nietzsche) as a radical Wgure throwing deeply entrenched presuppositions about the ‘subject’ into question, thus problematizing the
foundations of epistemology. A list of theorists who have devoted substantial articles to discussion of Artaud’s writing reads like a roll-call of
recent intellectual history: Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze (both on his
own and as a co-author with Fe´lix Guattari), Julia Kristeva, Susan
Sontag, Phillipe Sollers, Leo Bersani, not to forget earlier critical interventions by Maurice Blanchot, and the more Xeeting attention of Michel
Foucault.9 Their inXuence on Artaud scholarship has been enormous,
and through their power of intellectual provocation they initiated Artaud
criticism proper. What these readings have in common is that they are
attracted to Artaudian writing for what Sollers has dubbed the ‘expe´rience des limites’. The critical theorists see Artaud as oVering an experience of the otherness they seek to think, and a certain bias is thus
introduced. For post-structuralism, rather than being a self-conscious,
self-possessed source of insight, the subject is regarded as decentred,
elusive, an eVect of language or residue of pernicious metaphysical
thinking. But self-conscious self-possession is precisely what Artaud
9
Kristeva provides an excellent characterization of Artaudian practice in psychocritical
terms. The concept of the chora—the immediate manifestation of semiotic and bodily
pulsions—allows her to articulate the links between Artaud’s Surrealist texts on writing and
the late texts on the imagination of a new bodily form, and her account is wholly
convincing. Despite Deleuze’s grandiloquent championing of Artaud in his article ‘Le
Schizophre`ne et le mot’, where he declares he would not sacriWce one page of Artaud for
all of Carroll, in fact only half a page out of Wfteen are given over to discussing Artaud. This
is a disappointing failed encounter.

introduction

7

wants, and, far from being at ease with postmodern views of language,
Artaud Wnds the fact that meaning is caught in a perpetual round of
deferral to be catastrophic (as is clear in texts such as ‘La question se pose
de . . . ’). The post-stucturalist readings at least partially edit out the
desires motivating the text, altering the tenor of Artaud’s project.
The earliest and the most inXuential of the theoretical readings were
Derrida’s two articles ‘La Parole souZe´e’ and ‘Le The´aˆtre de la cruaute´
et la cloˆture de la repre´sentation’, subsequently reprinted in his seminal
L’E´criture et la diVe´rence. For most literary scholars these will be the two
pieces of Artaud criticism with which they are familiar, and after thirty
years they remain the most inspiring and still sketch out the richest
agenda, privileging the later texts and the notions of subjectivity, language, and metaphysics that are at the heart of Artaud’s creative enterprise. But this can be a problem for critics working in the wake of
Derrida if they are expected to engage with his analysis on his own
terms. Derrida observes that Artaud struggles against distinctions such as
life and philosophy, experience and concept, and this can only be conducted within the structure his discourse seeks to demolish. Readings
operating outside the terms of Derrida’s debate Wnd themselves relying
on just these notions, and so can seem to fall foul of his argument with
the (erroneous) implication that Derrida’s portrayal of Artaud is thus
somehow superior. But, whilst Derrida’s conceptual analysis of what is at
stake in the Artaudian project is indubitably correct, that does not
thereby guarantee the accuracy of his portrait of Artaud—which is in
fact wholly incidental to his conceptual analysis. And, once we look at
the practice of the Artaudian text—and no longer at the subjacent
dyadic thought structures they bring into question—then we can see
that Derrida presents a skewed vision of Artaud, especially in the Wrst
and most inXuential part of ‘La Parole souZe´e’, where he discusses
Artaud’s non-theatrical writings. It is worth looking at this in some detail,
for both its insights and its oversights.
As Derrida convincingly argues, Artaud promises an art that gives rise
to no works, an artist who is no longer the point of access to something
beyond or outside himself. Artaud thus protests against exemplarity
itself. Yet in this context Derrida silences Artaud’s own hesitations over
the exemplarity of his ‘maladie’, which Artaud comes to see as both
singular and exemplary (an attitude Derrida upbraids Blanchot for).
Whilst in no way invalidating Derrida’s critical methodology nor his
reading, this indicates the sort of thing that might be left out if we take
Derrida as chief guide to Artaud—and that is the speciWcs and logics of

8

introduction

Artaud’s writings. In general Derrida operates at the level of the conceptual implications of Artaud’s writing, suggesting, for example, that
Artaud seeks to destroy dualist metaphysics by eliminating expression in
favour of pure creation. This current study focuses more on the how and
the what, the excitements and incoherences of Artaud’s writing about his
desire for pure creativity. These diVerent focal distances and levels of
enquiry are, of course, complementary. But Derrida’s account, concentrating on the implications of Artaud’s writings for Derrida’s arguments
about a deconstruction of metaphysics, loses sight of his texts; and in this
second instance he inverses the means and the end—what Artaud seeks
is not the destruction of dualist metaphysics but pure creation. Artaud’s
thinking is not primarily metaphysical.
A second distortion arises from the ambition of Derrida’s overview.
His titular thesis is that ‘Artaud a voulu interdire que sa parole loin de
son corps soit souZe´e.’10 This is a typically crafty act of preterition, for
Derrida, never one to fall victim to the conceptual implications of his
own theses, outplays Artaud and consistently speaks Artaud’s texts in the
Wrst person, illustrating the impossibility of circumventing the metaphysics that, by treating a text as separate from its locus of production,
legitimates commentary. Yet, however sophisticated a move, it cannot
validate Derrida’s major thesis that any word oVering itself to be read or
heard thereby becomes for Artaud a stolen word. Perhaps some such
tenet is implicit within Artaud’s desire for a form of pure non-expressive
creativity, but that is beside the point: Artaud is not one to unpack his
claims, nor police the internal coherence of his thought. There is quite
simply no textual evidence for the claim that all utterances are by
deWnition stolen. And, if a supporting passage were found—and no
doubt it could be—many more would contradict it. Artaud is not a
careful thinker, and one of the major problems with Derrida’s reading
is that it credits him with too much philosophy. Artaud is not as smoothly
coherent and pat as Derrida makes him look.
Artaud is quite simply not as meditative, reXective, and philosophical
as Derrida’s brilliance makes him appear, nor do his texts carry the
penetrating insights he lends them. Derrida argues that ‘impouvoir’ is
not lack of inspiration, the sterility of having nothing to say, but on the
contrary is the inspiration itself in so far as it is antecedent and another
voice coming from ‘nowhere’. This is a powerful insight, but the idea of
the essential alterity of the inner voice is hard to Wnd in any Artaud
10

‘La Parole souZe´e’, 261. Page references are to the reprint in L’E´criture et la diVe´rence.

introduction

9

text—it is instead a transtextual deduction hovering above all his texts
and none in particular. In Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re and Le Pe`seNerfs where Artaud discusses ‘impouvoir’, linguistic crisis is associated
with the three diVerent problems of material Xashing through the mind,
of manifestations welling up from the chora, and of the linearity of
language. Artaud’s way of thinking is not unidirectional and incisive,
but fragmented, messy, and repetitive. Similarly, Derrida observes that
‘de`s que je m’entends, le je qui s’entend, qui m’entend, devient le je qui
parle et prend la parole [ . . . ] a` celui qui croit parler et eˆtre entendu en
son nom’ and so suggests that for Artaud word-theft is founded on the
‘unite´ premie`re de ce qui ensuite se diVracte comme vol’.11 He experiences speech as an act of dispossession where the speaking subject is no
longer he (alone) who speaks, and so always Wnds himself in a secondary
position—is thus always the double. Once again, this is a luminous
insight, brilliantly linking up the motifs of word-theft and doubling
belonging to distinct periods of Artaud’s career. Yet, once again, this is
too intellectual and too tidy for Artaud and there is no textual evidence
that such is his position. It is a teasing-out of the implications for
philosophy of what Artaud has to say, but in being used this way Artaud
slips beneath the Derridean argument and out of view.
In fact Derrida is driving to his own goal, and Artaud’s texts are used
as fuel. He is not detained by the passages he quotes but oVers links
between them, joining up the dots, as it were, to see the larger picture,
but paying scant attention to the textual speciWcs.12 Beyond any local
distortion, the greater danger with this approach is that it assumes
Artaud may be treated synthetically. But Artaud is not that sort of writer.
His ideas evolve and mutate over time, and, to make matters more
complicated, he proceeds by developing pairs of conXicting accounts,
and in his Wnal poetry two mythic narrative systems, the one to trace the
genealogy of his alienation, the other to trace out a future genealogy that
would end it. ‘La Parole souZe´e’ takes Artaud as oddly static, univocal
and free from internal dissension and fails to appreciate the inner
11

Ibid. 265.
Context is ignored when he yokes together a 1920s text about the body, for example,
with the identiWcation of God as ‘le Voleur’ in the 1940s texts. Suppositions are shallowly
anchored, with the textual evidence lacking for such cornerstone ideas as that God is the
name of that which deprives us of our own nature and birth and who will always, on the sly,
have spoken before us, introducing himself between me and me. Some suggetions seem
unfounded, as when he suggests that, for Artaud, God does not just usurp our innate
attributes but our very inneity, quoting from the ‘Pre´ambule’ to the Œuvres comple`tes: ‘Il y a
des imbe´ciles qui se croient des eˆtres, eˆtres par inne´ite´. j Moi je suis celui qui pour eˆtre doit
fouetter son inne´ite´’ (i*. 9), where the link to God requires substantiation.
12

10

introduction

dialectic of Artaud’s mythopoeisis. When Derrida argues: ‘Pour me
garder, pour garder mon corps et ma parole, il me faut retenir l’œuvre
en moi, me confondre avec elle pour qu’entre elle et moi le Voleur n’ait
aucune chance, l’empeˆcher de de´choir loin de moi comme e´criture’, he
is taking evolving narrative schema and treating them as a synchronic
system.13 Here he confuses early Artaud on the work as detrital artefact
and late Artaud on the need to faire bloc against the Voleur. For late Artaud
the œuvre is essentially a process moving towards the elimination of the
other, and so the text qua alterity is not to be retained but perpetually
evacuated. Further, while Artaud at times does link up the two ideas that
the Voleur is present at birth and that alterity is in language to suggest that
the Thief is present within utterance, he basically keeps these two
narratives separate (for otherwise writing would perpetuate, not put an
end to alienation). Derrida’s account of Artaud’s texts breaks down as he
is insuYciently attentive to their ongoing development.
Derrida claims to be speaking towards Artaud; to adapt this expression, he is in fact writing away from Artaud, used as part of a larger
argument about logocentrism. Derrida is at his strongest in drawing out
what is at stake in Artaud’s writing. Thus he concludes his article by
observing that Artaud seeks to destroy and to preserve in one and the
same moment metaphysics in general. Artaud’s discourse recalls the
motifs of the metaphysical tradition—self-presence, unity, self-identity—
accomplishes their deepest tendencies and so destroys them. Derrida’s
insights are right—there are two madnesses staring each other in the
face, the madness of an art without works and that of art as a relay, and
he brings this aporia into clear focus. But the Derridean performance is
ultimately uninterested in Artaud’s texts. Perhaps this is true of all
criticism that is disingenuous if it pretends to be handmaid to a master
text. Nevertheless, the problem is more pressing with Derrida because of
the way he has been read. First, because of the minute attention the
Derridean text pays to its own details, it creates the impression (to which
it never lays claim) of paying equal attention to the Artaudian text. And
Derrida, of course, produces the least handmaidenly of readings. Secondly, the playfulness of Derrida’s text makes us slow to realize how
earnestly he takes Artaud’s texts, ignoring Artaud’s own playfulness.
Thirdly, Derrida’s deconstructionist approach makes us similarly slow
to appreciate that, whilst never monolithic nor reductionist, his reading
fails to adjust to the way Artaud produces not a synchronic system but
13
‘La Parole souZe´e’, 272. Artaud’s ideas on text and excretion are discussed fully in
Chapter 7.

introduction

11

more of a burning hieroglyph (to use Artaud’s image from Le The´aˆtre et son
Double). And, if Derrida is very strong on the metaphysical reactions
making that burn, that does not qualify him as a guide to the forms those
hieroglyphs might take. It is in fact ironic, though here the fault lies with
his readers, that Derrida, the commentator of distrust, should have been
taken by Artaud studies as a guide to Artaud. This study, then, does not
seek to correct Derrida so much as to extricate Artaud from Derrida’s
performance on Artaud.
As Jane Goodall reminds us, Derrida fails to see the ‘oVensive dynamic
that fuels [Artaud’s writing] and the indefatigable strategic resourcefulness of Artaud’s campaign’.14 This gleeful resourcefulness is integral both
to the structure of Artaud’s way of thinking and to the local details of his
way of writing. Artaud has a liking for hyperbole and for the extreme
form of his own ideas. Further, his ideas are not discarded but transformed by the new work they are called upon to perform into bolder and
more encompassing variants. Artaud’s writings are clearly not a single
event (as ‘La Parole souZe´e’ might seem to imply), and his ideas are
better thought of in terms of their elaborate and volatile rhetorical
surface, at least as much as in terms of any conceptual substance. This
is why it is so important to see what Artaud says and how he says it—to
view his texts closer up in greater detail losing the (false) clarity of a
conceptual overview. Artaud ampliWes the rhetorical surface networks—
his ideas and narratives—to a point where they become deranged,
supercharged with meaning. This is lost if Artaud is read exclusively
for the implications of his problematization of dyadic thought structures.
The mobility of his ideas is not just the mobility of a thinker such as
Freud and his evolving modellings of the psyche, it is more of a burningup of ideas—and this constitutes a major part of the challenge of his
texts. This is where Derrida’s reading fails Artaud. However right he
may be in his transtextual exegesis, he does not respect this mobility, this
dance of ideas. And this dance is in fact integral to the overall architecture of the project, both an aesthetic principle and generative of the joy
that Derrida—along with many others—fails to see.
Artaud’s conceptual systems are intrinsically playful, and are in turn
vehicled by playful language.15 It is the combination of the impulse to
14
Jane Goodall, Artaud and the Gnostic Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 216.
Anyone interested in Derrida’s extraordinary readings of Artaud may proWtably consult
Goodall’s closing polemical chapter where she turns deconstructionist techniques against
their practitioners (pp. 213–20).
15
Canuille Dumoulie´ is the only critic to refer to Artaud’s humour (in Antonin Artaud (Les
Contemporains; Paris: Seuil, 1996)).

12

introduction

theorize his sense of alienation and, to redeploy Jacques Vache´’s term,
umour that is so signiWcant. The Artaudian text plays recklessly with
language in the midst of its most extraordinary conceptual leaps, injecting literarity into existential crisis, unsettlingly allowing the pleasures of
language to guide the unfolding of lines of thought. Metaphors are no
sooner established than they become the basis for a new, further Xight
towards epic mythologization, and the irritation Artaud’s writing provokes arises from his refusal to accept the cherished notions of the
Western tradition, but especially from his refusal to go about his questioning in the sanitized, decorous mode of intellectual endeavour. Philosophy may be considered as the type of writing in which the signifying
element is illusorily repressed in favour of the signiWer, and Artaud
refuses to leave metaphysical and theological notions in unruZed dignity. Instead his texts take mischievous delight in mixing modes and
Xouting discursive etiquette, and in his late writing he develops a signatory hybrid genre of poetic fantastic metaphysical diatribe tinged with
both puerile naughtiness and deadpan irony. This is his true iconoclasm.
It can be hard to maintain one’s equanimity in the face of Artaud’s
wilfully wild writings, which at times veer towards rant and the dishearteningly simplistic. But his texts can also be highly enjoyable and this,
perhaps the most important thing about his writing, goes forgotten.16 If
Artaud has some message, if he leaves us with an abiding image, it is
perhaps that the subject’s ´ecarte`lement by discourse goes far deeper than
other Modernist writers suggest, and the only way to face up to this fact is
through word-plays and -ploys.
Unfortunately, however, Artaud’s writing is disappearing under criticism. And the problem with much criticism is that it treats Artaud’s texts
as puzzles, or as failed message-conveyors that may with ingenuity be
rebuilt or unscrambled. Artaud suVers here from his reputation as a
problem writer. Typically, his writing is said to be fragmented, his style
jagged, and the various phases of his writing career to display only
minimal unity of purpose. Criticism has thus been reluctant to do
more than organize his work in such a way as to allow certain recurrent
images and themes to come to the fore. Even Derrida’s reading takes
Artaud’s texts as instances of a certain mode of metaphysical thinking,
16
Kristeva observes how the eroticization of the vocal apparatus leads to the introduction into language of the surcharge of oral pleasure that poetry translates into the redistribution of sound and syntax. It might further be argued that this phonic and syntactic
redistribution and consequent staving-oV of closure and meaning are something Artaud
takes to a high point, frequently combining them with eroticized descriptions of lower
bodily processes; this is what makes Artaud a master in juicy linguistic performance.

introduction

13

thus as message. Little attention has been paid to the poetic practices, to
the processes by which his texts generate their meanings nor to the logics
developed to hold these meanings precariously together. What such
readings miss is not only the speciWc terms of the thematic, the logics,
and the structurings of Artaud’s texts, but also the anger, polemics, and
inventiveness. If we content ourselves with a non-reading knowledge of
Artaud, we shall miss out on the pleasure that is the real key to his work.
It is only by reading Artaud that we may see beneath the large tidal
currents (so convincingly identiWed by Derrida) and see the crossrhythms that make the individual Artaudian sentence such fun to read.
Collapse and fragmentation are indeed strongly present features of
Artaud’s writing, and this study explores the characteristic processes of
dismantling, but this is far from being the whole story. Of course
Artaud’s writing is a-rational and does not hit any stride that would
sustain the prolonged development of a text—an inherent short-windedness means that in Artaud’s two novels the narrative machinery is
continually breaking down and having to be Wred up again—and his
view of reality becomes increasingly divorced from anything to which
most readers would wish to subscribe. But if we acknowledge the dispersive forces at work in the Artaudian corpus, we must also acknowledge
that they are held precariously in check by equally impressive structuring
forces. In what follows I attempt to demonstrate both how Artaud
disrupts and how he builds meaning-giving structures in his writing.
Each phase of his thought has suYciently strong structuring features
for us to talk of deviant systems. There are indeed contradictions and
incoherences, and one of the most striking features of his systems is that
they display an ongoing hesitancy towards the ideas they develop; but
even more impressive than his dissolution of established views of reality is
that he produces structures, Xawed, unstable, and provisory perhaps, out
of the debris. And at the level of textual detail we shall see that Artaud
displays an almost maniacally tight control over phonic patterning, the
semantic shifts to which he subjects terms, and the organization of
semantic blocks through both a wilfully idiosyncratic syntax and, in his
poetry, lineation. Out of these details, which make his prose and his
correspondence an especially free form of free verse, Artaud builds his
larger structures, which are marked in turn by the combination of
Xuidity and order that characterize his sentences.
It is both the details of the incoherences of Artaud’s conceptual
systems and the details of his sentences that allow us to get to grips
with the Artaudian text. For, with the exception of Le The´aˆtre et son Double

14

introduction

(and arguably He´liogabale), Artaud’s texts are either not read, only rapidly
read, or else read as examples of liminal discourse. The most neglected
area is the writing from 1943 on: the extensive correspondence written at
Rodez, the late writings intended for publication (Artaud le Moˆmo, Ci-gıˆt
pre´ce´de´ de la culture indienne, Pour en Wnir avec le jugement de dieu and Suppoˆts et
Suppliciations), and the extensive notebooks. What discussion there is
approaches them as a largely homogenous group needing to be lent
coherence (this is also true of his more discussed 1920s writings). The
general tendency is to tell the story, as it were, of Artaud’s writing, a
tendency that helps to identify the structural features of the texts in
question but fails to respect their literarity. Traditionally the late texts
have been interpreted according to the hidden paradigm of the linear
narrative: if Artaud composes a series of works, it is, the tacit assumption
seems to be, because he cannot say everything at once. Consequently the
shifts in his ideas have been played down. What this study seeks to do is
to explore these late texts, in all their internal and mutual contradictions,
for their own structuring devices. And, as importantly, to treat them as
distinct if related works and trace the ways in which Artaud’s ideas are
subjected to pressures by the fact of their expression within a particular
work, leading to the need to write a new version of these ideas in each
subsequent work. There is a drivenness to Artaud’s writings that escapes
readings that would smooth over the plasticity of his ideas. In brief, then,
this study analyses the read but under-scrutinized early writings, so as to
provide a framework, derived largely from Artaud’s work itself and not
from external bodies of theoretical or doctrinal discourse, within which
to start reading the under-read Rodez writings, before turning to the
Wnal works. The aim is to elucidate the larger structures by looking at the
neglected low-level structuring features, but also to highlight the complexities, contradictions, incoherences, and tensions that propel his writing forward into the next phase.17
The opening two chapters suggest that the sense of linguistic and
existential crisis in Artaud’s 1920s and early 1930s texts is a response to
the impossible desire to write a pre-linguistic state of bodily awareness.
The Wrst chapter charts Artaud’s engagement with Surrealist thought,
17
It is, of course, not strictly true that no critics have paid close attention to textual
details. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Rodolphe Gasche´’s brilliant
reading of the onomastic complexities that gravitate around Artaud’s naming the plaguebearing boat of Le The´aˆtre et son Double the Grand-Saint-Antoine (in ‘Self-Engendering as a
Verbal Body’, Modern Language Notes, 93 (1978), 677–94). However, my point is that critical
overviews of Artaud’s work do not engage in such low-level analysis and that they thereby
miss out on the dynamics of Artaud’s writing.

introduction

15

his abjuration of rationalistic discourse and preoccupation with the
paucity of verbalized consciousness. His sense of de-realization in discourse leads him to imagine a new idea of selfhood privileging an
instinctual awareness of the welter of bodily experience. The second
chapter disputes the view that his early writing documents literary silence
and cognitive stalling. Instead his texts are seen implicitly to invoke an
ideal, pre-verbal prise de conscience of himself as a functioning, sentient
body-in-the-world. This leads Artaud to imagine a rejuvenated language
able to say the Xuctuations of such rudimentary experience in its dynamic complexity, for he concludes that only new linguistic forms could
deliver full self-cognition and thus the eZorescence of an inner self. The
opening two chapters therefore discover the positive theorizing work
carried out under cover of the negative critique of language and show his
underlying concern is not the dysfunctioning of his psyche but selfpresence, precisely that which is ever more explicitly his concern in the
writings from 1943 on.
In Chapters 3 and 4, Artaud’s deepening metaphysical dualism is
traced, providing the intellectual background to the idiosyncratic ontotheological system of his neglected asylum texts of 1943–5, which have
not previously been studied in detail other than as symptomatic documents of psychosis. As part of a broader questioning of all origins and
givens, Artaud recasts his Surrealist ideas on language and the body,
privileging the idea of a dual body of abjection and purity, which later
grows into the notion of the corps sans organes. Similarly his idea of
‘envouˆtement’ evolves into a metaphoric account of the way cultural
and linguistic structural patternings bring alterity into the heart of the
linguistic subject. Chapter 4 then expands this reading, tracing the ideas
on language that run through the religious narrative. Artaud considers
there to be a gulf separating human language from the cosmogenesic
Word of God, resulting in an impoverished status for artistic utterance.
He rebels against this until the discursive hierarchy has been inverted,
overthrowing Artaud’s Christian beliefs. Artaud’s enquiries into language are thus shown in Chapter 4 to be the wellsprings of the project
of the Wnal poetry, to create a new Artaud by doing away with God.
The closing three chapters read the univers imaginaire of his late writings
in the light of these narrative structures on body and language. They
argue that his late texts poetically rewrite metaphysical orthodoxy by
fostering large-scale ambivalences, and that the interrelated writing on
God and the body constitutes a ludic yet eerily compelling mythic
system. Chapter 5 is pivotal, arguing that the extravagance of Artaud’s

16

introduction

Wnal writing resides in the work upon language as much as in the ideas
expressed. The diYculty of the writing is frequently an index of its
subversive energies, and the techniques that make the text diYcult
actually perform positive sense-generating work. The text disrupts normal linguistic functioning to disclose and so purge language of the values
and structures of Western conceptual orthodoxy, considered to be incommensurate with authentic self-expression. Linguistic exuberance
might threaten Artaud’s texts with unintelligibility, but the Cahiers work
on language in order to fashion the sense-units with which they build a
strange new textual world.
The closing pair of chapters examines the dual, intermeshing myths
Artaud evolves in his late writings of a God who inhabits his body and of
an alternative body he would possess unchallenged. Emphasis is placed
on the extent to which formal qualities structure these mutating narratives. The story of God’s vampiric, salacious practices becomes increasingly extravagant as it feeds oV its own images and rhetorical devices,
pushing the narrative system beyond a metaphoric account of alienation.
This increasing extravagance means it would be as unwise to portray
Artaud’s theology as purely a ludic parody as it would be to portray it as
merely psychotic. Despite the fame of his image of the corps sans organes,
what the Wnal poetic texts say about the body, and how they say it, have
received only brief critical attention. Far from glorifying the lower body
and its Xuids, the notion of the corps sans organes is an increasingly
unbodily body.18 It is the idea of the corps sans organes that leads the
conceptual dance, drawing the diverse theorizing mythic systems loosely
together. But, as with the related account of God, the writing on the
body takes oV and becomes a self-perpetuating, mutating narrative
fuelled by its own rhetorical energy. Increasingly the text identiWes the
writing subject with the corps sans organes, and linguistic innovation here
plays a key role in reimagining a new kind of identity. The Wnal emphasis
is placed on the increasingly stretched structure-giving qualities of his
poems, precariously holding in check the conceptual excesses of their
mythic narratives.
The reading put forward here, then, discerns the structuring, reconceptualizing work performed by Artaud’s writing without losing sight of
the disordering impulses. When both the system-dismantling and the
18
This is perhaps where the missed encounter between Deleuze and Artaud may be
most clearly seen: to suggest that ‘le corps sans organes est seulement fait d’os et de sang’ and
that the corps sans organes is ‘un corps Xuidique et glorieux, Xamboyant’ can be qualiWed only
as misreading (Gilles Deleuze, ‘Le Schizophre`ne et le mot’, Critique, 255–6 (1968), 741 n.).

introduction

17

system-building tendencies have been appreciated, the most impressive
thing about Artaud’s texts is the way that, within each poem, line by line,
Artaud’s trenchant, muscular style manages to craft a precarious equipoise between order and dissolution. In what follows we shall see great
energy expended by Artaud’s writing in its disruption, dispersal, and
regeneration of structures. In the early writings he develops what the
critic Dumoulie´ nicely characterizes as a ‘dynamique de la fureur’,
which, whilst pretending to reveal his naked being uncloaked by literary
artiWce, actually sets up a rhetoric to convince the addressee of the reality
of the analysis carried by his images.19 This fury of destructive energy is
not only directed against the higher level structures of orthodox ideas on
thought and language; from the beginning of his writing career it spills
over into the lower level of sentence and paragraph in such texts as ‘Paul
les Oiseaux ou la Place de l’Amour’ (written in 1925, the opening year of
Artaud’s major publishing career). Artaud here writes a Wctionalized
version of his own life refracted through the intermediary of the Florentine Renaissance painter Uccello, renowned for his perfection of the
structure-giving quality of perspective. The excedentary energies of
Artaud’s writing leap over the Wrebreak separating writing self from the
image reXecting back that self:
Paulo Uccello est en train de se de´battre au milieu d’un vaste tissu mental
[...]
Quitte ta langue, Paulo Uccello, quitte ta langue, ma langue, ma langue,
merde, qui est-ce qui parle, ou` es-tu? Outre, outre, Esprit, Esprit, feu, langues
de feu, feu, feu, mange ta langue, vieux chien, mange sa langue, mange etc.
J’arrache ma langue.
oui.
Pendant ce temps [ . . . ] (i*. 54)

There is here a quite extraordinary headlong rush from the stability
aVorded by the stage-direction-like detachment of the Wrst line through
the direct address of the second-person singular to an increasing breakdown of logic and referentiality. The momentum gathers as the text
accelerates to full near-nonsensical speed in just three lines, only to apply
the breaks with equal force as Artaud swallows the linguistic outburst
back down as the clauses lengthen out again for the second paragraph to
close on the imposition of silence. A silence immediately shattered by the
full-throated aYrmatory outburst. The third paragraph is one single
capitalized word, and this lineation, to which we have been sensitized
19

Dumoulie´, Antonin Artaud, 11.

18

introduction

by the use of punctuation to expand and contract the semantic units in
the second paragraph, underscores how the will to structure contained in
one word is equal to forty words of dissolution. An intense centrifugal
force has curbed the threatened incoherence and allows the text to
progress in cliche´d tranquillity. Artaud’s explosive energy is brought to
heel by a reordering of the textual world he has just shattered in a way
that will be echoed less than a year before his death in Pour en Wnir avec le
jugement de dieu, with the aYrmation that his uncontainable explosive
force will scatter reality into 10,000 shards before regrouping it into an
unforgettable new form (xiii. 118). From the earliest through to the latest
texts Artaud’s writing displays this dual movement of dispersal and
restructuring. His strong-armed control over syntax, punctuation, and
lineation allows him, with increasing conWdence, to subject his writing to
extreme distensions, and in the later writings the unfolding of sense is
deferred until breaking point. He orchestrates his writing with a Wne ear
for the limits to which he can push disorder without quite rupturing the
structures that contain it.
The twin impulses to order and disorder are carried over from
sentence making to the higher level of writing deviant conceptual systems. Artaud’s pathological onto-theology and metaphysics display great
elasticity. In his mythologized conceptualization of the human condition
the rebellious theological and metaphysical structures he has crafted
have to expand and contract to accommodate the discordances and
contradictions generated by his unstoppable ‘dynamique de fureur’.
And, having restructured metaphysics and theology, he then writes
against these restructurings, dissolving his own creations and producing
ever sparser and more agile conceptualizations of his life. This ongoing
creative conceptualizing is conducted through imagery, and this explicit
poeticization of theorizing can lend his thinking a phantasmal air. It is a
theorizing of suggestion, not of deWnition, and the object in whose name
this theorizing is covertly undertaken is absent from his texts. Whether it
be his early desire for a language that might enable self-presence, a
theatre of metaphysical immediacy in his middle period, or the performative, dynamic identity he lays claim to in his Wnal writings, he is
always gesturing towards something he cannot quite state. The structures of his theorizing are grandiose constructs that do not hold their
unobtainable desires. Artaud does not build theories but theorizes, his
work is directed not towards creating objects, either aesthetic or theoretical, but towards the activities of thinking and writing. His is a writing

introduction

19

of intellectual energy, not intellectual fruits. What matters to Artaud is
not structures, but the dissolution and reconstitution of structures.
This study is a study of literature. It is not an apologia for Artaudian
thought. It looks at what happens when linguistic playfulness is placed at
the service of wide-scale metaphysical restructuring in Artaud’s writing,
and, if this involves tracing Artaud’s ideas, this should not be taken as an
endorsement of them. In his Wnal great work, Suppoˆts et Suppliciations,
Artaud suggests that, ‘depuis cinquante ans que je dure, mon de´lire ne
m’a pas quitte´ et c’est le de´lire d’un homme e´claire´’ (xiv**. 167). We
might not agree that it is an enlightened delirium (at least not in the sense
Artaud here suggests), but we must recognize that Artaud’s is a coherent
delirium. And both these terms, ‘coherent’ and ‘delirium’, must be given
equal weight if we are to trace the extraordinary structuring and dismantling energies at work in the Artaudian text. If the delirium of
Artaud’s writing increases with time, so too does its eerie coherence. In
the face of increasing self-dissolution, Artaud’s increasingly voluminous
writing aYrms his will to stay just this side of disorder, and out of the
dispersal of self and sense to forge a verbal self-reinvention. The organization, and aYrmation of will achievable in writing mean the text
replaces an existence of entropy and disarray. If the heart of Artaud’s
late idea of a new form of existence created by writing is delirious, it is
undertaken out of a desire for coherence and simplicity.
What follows, then, is an attempt to chart the Xows of order and
disorder, and of creation and destruction, in Artaud’s work. He theorizes
on a cusp between reason and unreason, but throughout his energies are
directed by questions of authorship and of language. The rationale
behind his vast rhetorical and mythic systems is to create a means of
expressing the cruel creativity of being, but rhetoric and myth cannot say
being, only gesture towards it. And yet, when we Wnish reading Artaud,
what is even more striking than the delirious desire to dissolve and
recreate being by the act of writing is the immense creative, orchestrating will, what Artaud calls at Rodez: ‘la simplicite´ de ma Volonte´
inabdiquante’ (xv. 112), which plays unnervingly with order and disorder.
And, as we shall see, if at diVerent stages in his career Artaud’s writing
organizes reality in very diVerent ways, there is an underlying dynamic
that allows us to see Artaud not just as a giver of local structure but as the
author of a master structure, and his writings not just as a series of
fragmented texts but as a precariously ordered œuvre of exciting, irreducibly strange, and fascinating poetic works.

1
PAINFUL BODIES OF THOUGHT
Sous la grammaire il y a la pense´e qui est un opprobre plus fort a`
vaincre, une vierge beaucoup plus reveˆche, beaucoup plus reˆche a`
outrepasser quand on la prend pour un fait inne´.
(ix., 10)
We set up a word at the point at which our ignorance begins, at
which we can see no further, e.g. the word ‘I’ [ . . . ]—these are
perhaps the horizons of our knowledge.1

In Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re (1924), Artaud’s Wrst major text and a
seminal account of the misdirections and breakdowns in thinking and
writing, Artaud presents himself to Jacques Rivie`re, critic and editor of
the vanguard journal La Nouvelle Revue franc¸aise, as a signiWcant writer
precisely because of his acute diYculties in writing.2 He claims to be ‘une
ve´ritable anomalie’ (i*. 27), and is at pains to distance himself from
contemporaries who, if their writings testify to a relative ‘faiblesse’ in
front of the written word, are not like him aVected ‘dans la chair et dans
[l’]aˆme de tous les jours. Cette inapplication a` l’objet qui caracte´rise
toute la litte´rature, est chez moi une inapplication a` la vie. Je puis dire,
moi, vraiment, que je ne suis pas au monde, et ce n’est pas une simple
attitude de l’esprit’ (i*. 41). Others might opt to surrender intellectual
control to follow the caprices of thought, Artaud implies, but the fabric of
his being embodies a veritable inability to think. His is no stance; and
herein lies the value of his writing, he argues, for its peculiar failings are
revelatory of an exemplarily alienated mind: ‘Je m’e´tais imagine´ vous
retenir [ . . . ] par la rarete´ de certains phe´nome`nes d’ordre intellectuel
[ . . . ] Je me Xattais de vous apporter un cas, un cas mental caracte´rise´, et
[ . . . ] attirer votre attention sur la valeur re´elle, la valeur initiale de ma
1

Nietzsche, The Will to Power, para. 482.
Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re was not Artaud’s Wrst publication. Prior to this were a
collection of poems in rhyming stanzas, Tric-Trac du ciel (1923), and two copies of a slender
review penned entirely by Artaud, Bilboquet (1923), standing midway between traditional
rhyming stanzas and the self-analytic poetic fragments developed to the fullness of their
power during his alliance with Surrealism. He had also published two dozen or so poems,
letters, and essays. It is with Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re, however, that the evolution of
the writer we now know commenced.
2

painful bodies of thought

21

pense´e’ (i*. 28). These are unashamedly publicist letters, and such
threadbare rhetorical devices as paired reprises (of the nouns ‘cas’ and
‘valeur’) spring readily to Artaud’s pen. But he claims to live in a diVerent
linguistic order and hence diVerent reality from the rationalized and
ordered view of the world enshrined in orthodox discourse. There is, he
suggests insistently, something special about his thought that makes his a
dramatically discontinuous and yet essentially metaphysical and surreal
mental universe. However insistent the lament that he suVers from his
exclusion from this world (‘je ne suis pas au monde’), he presents his audela` as a realm of greater existential authenticity.
It is, of course, no small irony that a series of letters where Artaud is
laying claim to a uniquely profound breakdown in his creative thought
processes and presenting himself as ‘un cas’ should now be perceived as
one of the deWning accounts of creative thought, rivalling Paul Vale´ry’s
La Soire´e avec Monsieur Teste (1896). Indeed, Rivie`re explicitly places
Artaud alongside Teste (i*. 35), but the comparison, whilst an honour
to the force of exposition of the unknown Artaud of 1923–4, must not be
pushed too far. Teste’s troubles relate to an over-abundance of possible
thought trails; in Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re Artaud presents his
diYculties in obverse terms as a fundamental stalling of the mind where
every thought is recalcitrant. Whereas Vale´ry’s thinker would seem to be
threatened by an over-transparency, a too great facility in observing the
mind that could lead him to look straight through it, the kind of
nothingness described by Artaud is not invisibility but absence.
The Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re throws a long shadow over
Artaud’s œuvre, not least because he has been taken at his word as
importantly and illuminatingly non-mainstream. The prevalent image
of Artaud sees him as a revealing combination of the seminal and
the marginal and his writing as a heroic failure where genius is at the
service of intellectual dissolution. It is certainly true that Artaud takes the
question of creativity and silence into new areas by his account of
insidious linguistic collapse and the non-occurrence of thought, together
with his Wne analyses of the sense of existential paucity this occasions.
Throughout his career he courted the image of archetypal yet atypical
suVerer and seer, and identiWed with such ‘alie´ne´s authentiques’ as Van
Gogh, Nietzsche, and Nerval. His most highly regarded texts—Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re, Le The´aˆtre et son Double, Van Gogh, le suicide´ de la
socie´te´—are those where his theorizing about art is accompanied by the
implicit claim that the excentric perspective he adopts aVords an incomparably superior appreciation of art’s true function, and, by extension, of

22

painful bodies of thought

the basic realities of life. This image of the crazedly lucid poe`te maudit
survived his death, and in the late 1940s and 1950s his name was elevated
to critical canonization as martyr to artistic suVering,3 while his appeal to
post-structuralist critics in the 1960s relied on a more sophisticated yet
related vision of his writing as revelatory of the dispersive forces at work
on the modern linguistic, thinking subject. Artaud is thought to be
interesting because liminal, and this liminality is said to tell us something
of the intellectual taboos of Western culture. Yet, whatever the value of
seeing his texts as a revealingly distorted mirror held up to the Western
world view, it has prevented an appreciation of the way Artaud’s writing
does not just assault Western thought modes but also builds up something that, despite its tensions and its increasingly mythic overtones, is a
form of conceptual system.
Still, there is an important way in which the image of Artaud as a
marginal writer whose thought is revelatory of the dissolution of the
thinking and linguistic subject does hold good. In countering certain
conceptual myopia—thinking, for example, is not just the smooth,
homogenous process that the Western tradition was long prone to
dress it up as, but may instead be legitimately seen as subject to secret,
hidden pressures exerted by linguistic and conceptual systems—Artaud
allows repressed aspects of ideas and accounts to come to the fore. What
he says about those repressed aspects might, especially towards the end
of his life, be extravagant, but that does not detract from his signalling
speciWc aspects of a notion as neglected to the point of being occluded
(or, as Artaud will call it in the 1940s, occulted—‘envouˆte´’). A fundamental point about Artaud is that he takes ideas with a quite extraordinary seriousness, and what for others are largely dead metaphors are
for him vibrantly alive and often threatening truths. Without denying the
justiWable basis of the image of Artaud as exemplary marginal Wgure,
then, it is important to see that this marginality is not the result of an
inherent oddity, an eccentric and perhaps psychotic world view, but is
instead the product of a lively intellectual interaction with cultural and
intellectual frameworks. He builds his extraordinary and extravagant
vision of the human condition out of his analyses of the failure of
language and of the voids of the thinking subject.

3
A typical example of early Artaud criticism: ‘Antonin Artaud s’est a` bon escient suicide´
sa vie durant, sans une heure de re´pit, sans se pre´occuper de disciples, d’imitateurs, pour notre
salut ’ ( Jacques Audiberti, ‘Le Salut par la peau’, Revue K Numero double Antonin Artaud, 1–2
(1948), 62.

painful bodies of thought

23

In his writings of the 1920s Artaud dwells closely on how language,
thought, and ratiocination may relate to self, body, and world. His
writing circles round these themes, playing out the same motifs with
myriad variations. They provide the framework for the exploration of his
sense of existential thinness and insubstantiality initiated in the 1920s
texts and continued in all his subsequent writings, so this chapter will
oVer a general view of what Artaud has to say on these issues and a broad
feel of how he tends to express it. It is in fact insuYciently recognized that
Artaud’s intellectual trajectory Xows directly from the 1920s collections
(Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re, L’Ombilic des Limbes, Le Pe`se-Nerfs, Fragments d’un Journal d’Enfer) and especially from the originally uncollected
writings now published under the title ‘Textes surre´alistes’ (i**) and
largely ignored by criticism. The following chapter in particular will
draw on these texts to analyse more closely what Artaud says about
linguistic aridity, thus revealing some rather surprising premisses to the
philosophy of language structuring his poetics.
The notion of a linguistic crisis is not, of course, peculiarly modern,
and Artaud is far from being alone in sensing the inadequacy of the
poetic idiom.4 To take the example of an immediate precursor, in his
famous Chandos Letter (1902) the Austrian poet, dramatist, and essayist
Hofmannstahl Wnds that previously real abstract concepts crumble in the
mouth like mouldy fungi. Within the English tradition, the generation of
Yeats and Eliot—the contemporaries of the Surrealists—felt language to
be depotentiated by rationality and to have undergone an irreversible
process of deformation and decay. Instead of being a vehicle for selfexpression, language is experienced by the modernist writer as an oppressive superego. In a letter of July 1914 the German-language writer
Kafka, who captured so much of twentieth-century anxiety in his work,
observed that ‘what I write is diVerent from what I say, what I say is
diVerent from what I think, what I think is diVerent from what I ought
to think and so it goes on further into the deepest darkness’.5 It is not
a lack of individual inspiration or the dead weight of tradition that
impedes creativity but language as such. Language is no longer conceived as a tool but as a force in its own right (making literary activity less
an aesthetic than an existential activity). The German philosopher
4
The brief overview of the idea of linguistic crisis that follows is especially indebted to
Richard Sheppard’s excellent article ‘The Crisis in Language’, in Malcolm Bradbury and
James McFarlane (eds.), Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890–1930 (London: Penguin, 1991), 323–36.
5
Quoted in English in ibid. 328.

24

painful bodies of thought

Heidegger, whose work is contemporary to Surrealism, says of language
that it does not exhaust itself in signifying but remains excedentary to
human uses, outside the world, self-standing and resistant. This captures
in abstract terms a strain running through Dada and Surrealist thought.
Much of what Artaud has to say on the issues of discourse and reality
overlaps with the ideas of French poets of his generation. His conception
of language, thought, and reality is inscribed not just within the modernist movement but wholly within the matrix of Surrealist debate, of
which he was one of the moving forces. However, where Andre´ Breton
and Louis Aragon perceived the split within the speaking subject as
introducing a fruitful strangeness into experience that made possible a
rejuvenation of reality, Artaud identiWes this doubling in the subject with
linguistic breakdown. It is true that breakdown places him on a metaphysically more authentic plane than that of the usual conceptual Wctions
of the doxa. Linguistic failure is for him an index of authenticity. It opens
his eyes to the delusions of orthodox ideas on the linguistic subject, but
only because he is battering himself against the limits of discourse in his
attempt to express his subjecthood. But, given that for Artaud the subject
is largely the linguistic subject, linguistic failure precludes the possibility
of authentic subjecthood. Placing great stress on the jumps, breaks, and
losses within thought and on the importance of the suVering body in
relation to this non-continuity of thought, Artaud’s personal creed is
saturated with an existential pessimism and solipsism that sit oddly with
the upbeat fervour and the ludic nature of much 1920s Surrealist writing.
Where Surrealist poetry aims to liberate the human spirit, in his selfanalytical writing Artaud never even says to his satisfaction his own
fragmentation. So what distinguishes Artaud’s thought on language,
truth, self, and world from the Surrealist matrix in which it develops is,
Wrst, that he situates his ideas more squarely in the domain of metaphysics, not aesthetics, and, secondly, that he despairs of breaking out of the
wasteland of reality and alienation into a surreality of vibrancy and
plenitude. This latter is his desired destination throughout his writing
career, but one from which the linguistic subject is, he suggests, permanently exiled—or fallen.
Artaud, with the other habitue´s of Masson’s studio (sometimes called
the 46 rue Blomet group), began attending the second wave of Andre´
Breton’s gatherings in the summer of 1924. If now seen as a secondary
Wgure in the Surrealist movement, he was no mere fellow traveller, and
leant towards zealotry and extremism in his interpretation of what
Surrealism should stand for: ‘J’ai fait connaissance avec tous les dadas

painful bodies of thought

25

qui voudraient bien m’englober dans leur dernier bateau surre´aliste’,
Artaud writes in 1924, ‘mais rien a` faire. Je suis beaucoup trop surre´aliste
pour cela. Je l’ai d’ailleurs toujours e´te´, et je sais, moi, ce que c’est que le
surre´alisme. C’est le syste`me du monde et de la pense´e que je me suis fait
depuis toujours’ (i**. 112).6 He was nominated Director of the Bureau de
recherches surre´alistes in January 1925, and edited the third edition of
the standard-bearing La Re´volution surre´aliste. Soon he was introducing his
own urgent concerns and it has been suggested that his expulsion in 1926
was in large part due to Breton’s disquiet at the guiding force Artaud was
becoming.7 It was inevitable that Artaud’s alliance with Surrealism be
uneasy because of a diVerence in literary temperament. The form his
writing naturally took was violent socio-religious invective, whilst the
emphasis in Surrealist writing—at least until its politicization in the late
1920s—was placed on the positive ideal of a creative liberation from
social and rational orthodoxy, and on a beauty to be spun out of the
freshness of the merveilleux and the hasard objectif. In the words of a leading
scholar of the movement: ‘Surrealism insults reason for the beneWt of
spontaneity, logic for the beneWt of the lyric sense of the marvellous, and
everyday reality for the glory of the insolite.’8 The undertow of Artaud’s
writing pulls in a very diVerent direction, for he directed his energies
towards writing against what he conceived as the barriers to this freedom—language, reason, and conceptual constructs. Artaud intones the
apocalypse, and does not sing the Surrealist revolution. Whilst the
violence of much Surrealist textual imagery was a joyous, iconoclastic
release of energies, the violence of texts such as Artaud’s ‘Adresse au
Pape’—‘guerre a` toi, Pape, chien’ (i**. 41)—reveals an earnest hatred.
The intense passion that was criticized in his acting of the period was just
as apparent in his writing, of uncustomary virulence even for Surrealist
polemic.
Artaud claims to be naturally Surrealist on the ground that for him the
surreal was not a willed, aestheticized vision of reality but attendant
upon the acute derealization he experienced within discourse. Leaving
6
This ties in well with Andre´ Masson’s reading of Artaud: ‘S’il existe un surre´aliste,
c’e´tait assure´ment Artaud’. ‘Artaud, lui-meˆme’, Cahiers de la Compagnie Renaud-Barrault:
Antonin Artaud et le the´atre de notre temps, 22–3 (1958), 9.
7
The suggestion is made by Stephen Barber (Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs (London:
Faber and Faber, 1993), 29). Ge´rard Durozoi, in le Surre´alisme, co-authored with Bernard
Lecharbonnier (the`mes et textes; Paris: Larousse, 1972), quotes Breton as being distinctly
alarmed by ‘cette voie; mi-libertaire, mi-mystique, [qui] n’e´tait pas tout a` fait la mienne’.
8
Mary Ann Caws, The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1970), 18.

26

painful bodies of thought

aside the signiWcant diVerence of tone, there is certainly much common
ground between Artaud and such major theoreticians of Surrealist
poetry as Aragon and Breton. Many elements of the Dada-derived
early Surrealist creed are to be found in Artaud’s collections of the
1920s, L’Ombilic des Limbes, Le Pe`se-Nerfs, Fragments d’un Journal d’Enfer,
and especially L’Art et la Mort. (This latter, oddly, is the one collection
published after Artaud’s rupture with the Surrealist movement and yet
the only one extensively to deploy orthodoxly Surrealist stylistic techniques.) The scandalizing of intellectual good manners, negation of
knowledge, and celebration of the arational mark their credentials as
early French Surrealist polemic. If stylistically most of these texts stand
apart, only infrequently displaying touches of Surrealist lyricism (and this
is an important point underlining the fact that Artaud’s overlap with
Surrealism lay in a mode of thinking more than in an aesthetic),9 they
articulate a similar attitude towards Western rationalistic culture and its
impasses as the writings of mainstream Surrealist writers, together with a
similar neophytic admiration of other (mainly oriental) cultures.10
As Director of the Surrealist Research Centre Artaud was quick to
speak for the collective in his more ideologizing moments: in an anonymous text he wrote to open the third edition of La Re´volution surre´aliste,
for example, ordered thought is decried as anathema to deep reality:
‘logique, ordre, Ve´rite´ (avec un grand V), Raison, nous donnons tout au
ne´ant de la mort’ (i**. 32). Binary logic and dualist thought modes are
particularly reviled: ‘L’Europe logique e´crase l’esprit sans Wn entre les
marteaux de deux termes’ (i**. 43). Reason and logic have stunted reality
to the point of deformation: ‘le re´el n’e´tant qu’une des faces les plus
transitoires et les moins reconnaissables de l’inWnie re´alite´’ (i*. 126) and so
the revolution must strive for ‘la rupture et la disqualiWcation de la
logique qu’elle pourchassera jusqu’a` l’extirpation de ses retranchements
primitifs’ (i**. 45). Artaud departs here from mainstream Surrealist
thought, which is not antirationalistic as such but suggests that what
rationality presents as contradictory is better seen as complementary. In
the Second manifeste Andre´ Breton writes that: ‘Tout porte a` croire qu’il
existe un certain point de l’esprit d’ou` la vie et la mort, le re´el et
9
Two notable stylistic exceptions are Paul les Oiseaux ou la Place de l’Amour (i*. 54–6)
and the text inspired by a painting by Andre´ Masson, Un ventre Wn . . . (i*. 60–2).
10
See e.g. Artaud’s sycophantic ‘Adresse au Dalaı¨-Lama’ (i**. 42). This should not be
confused with the hostile text of the same name (i*. 16–19) written by Artaud the cultural
terrorist in 1946 to introduce his projected Œuvres comple`tes (see i*. 271 n.). There are also two
texts entitled ‘Adresse au Pape’ for the same reason.

painful bodies of thought

27

l’imaginaire, le passe´ et le futur, le communicable et l’incommunicable,
le haut et le bas cessent d’eˆtre perc¸us contradictoirement.’ The aim is to
reconstitute totalities and resolve antimonies through the work of what
Apollinaire called ‘la raison ardente’, instead of the dissociating and
classifying of ‘la raison froide’. This creed provides the basis for Surealist
poetic images, which unite elements habitually dissociated: thus, for
example, Eluard both sings the poet’s power and negates the logical
dissociation of things in ‘J’e´tablis des rapports entre l’homme et la femme
j Entre les fontes du soleil et le sac a` boutons.’ Surrealist poetics seek less
to do away with reason than to reinstate all that reason does away with,
and the aim in lines such as Eluard’s is less to transgress old orders than
to connect anew. For Artaud too the rationalistic order is seen as
insubstantial in comparison to the potential richness of mental life: ‘la
Toute-Pense´e. Le merveilleux est a` la racine de l’esprit’ (i**. 32). But,
despite positive reference to the marvellous, the dominant impression
even in the most mainstream Surrealist texts Artaud wrote for La
Re´volution surre´aliste is of advanced entropy and of being dragged down
into the ‘ne´ant’ that appears so frequently under his pen. The rationalistic inXection of our ideation of reality veils the inadequacy of our
representations of it, for reason lends a false coherence and illusory
higher dignity to a reality that, if truth be told for Artaud, is experienced
by suVering bodies as a scattering, confusing welter of experience. The
compartmentalization and ordering of experience within rationalistic
language drains our representations of life of any vitality for Artaud,
and this is true not just of the outside world but also of the linguistic
subject. For Artaud, cognition is a supremely complex operation upon
equally complex experiential material; rationalistic thinking loses all this
complexity.
Rationalistic language is, therefore, a major factor in Artaud’s sense of
existential paucity. In texts of the mid-1920s he sometimes prescribes a
vital dose of the unordered and the surreal. In a rare text where Artaud
employs Surrealist stylistic devices he contrasts a mental state of surreal
chaosmos to the sterility of mental experience once it has been ordered
by ratiocination. Initially the text evokes the rich, dense experiential state
prior to conceptualization:
Une grande ferveur pensante et surpeuple´e portait mon moi comme un abıˆme
plein. Un vent charnel et re´sonnant souZait, et le soufre meˆme en e´tait dense. Et
des radicelles inWmes peuplaient ce vent comme un re´seau de veines, et leur
entrecroisement fulgurait. L’espace e´tait mesurable et crissant, mais sans forme
pe´ne´trable. (i*. 51)

28

painful bodies of thought

The correspondance of ‘charnel’ wind and ‘crissant’ space is not just poetic
conceit: the experience described is one of free interplay that celebrates
the many-meaningedness of immediate lived experience. The repeated
‘et’ conveys an almost trancelike participation in the rich multiplicity of
pre-rational experience. But, once the higher intellectual faculties work
on this interfused mass of brute experience, it is fractured into discrete
elements, draining out the signiWcatory plurality: ‘quelque chose du bec
d’une colombe re´elle troua la masse confuse [ . . . ] toute la pense´e
profonde a` ce moment se stratiWait, se re´solvait, devenait transparente
et re´duite’ (i*. 51). The poetic manifold is lost. Somewhere between the
noisy over-signiWcation of chaos and the sterility of an order-ridden
discourse Artaud posits a fragile poetic state that is a celebration of
multiplicity and potentiality. A new, chaotic order is to elicit but not
impose form on the miasma of experience, and at times Artaud seems to
imply that surreal poetic diction might oVer the means of retaining the
vital disorder of experience.
There may be an element of provocation in Artaud’s imputing sonority and resistance, physical characteristics, to objects of consciousness,
as there may in his describing mental space as ‘crissant’ (i*. 51). But this is
not dictated purely by a taste for provocation. Artaud’s texts insist with
some urgency on the need for a new state of autonomy in which he
would be open to, yet not dominated by, the world. Such desires bring to
mind how in Eluard’s poetry objects frequently acquire a simple yet
powerful presence capable of inducing a childlike sense of plenitude. But
with Eluard the object is always present to a distinct subject, the two
existing in a harmonious state of equal ontological purity. Eluard is thus
closer to Hofmannstahl’s idea of the poet as he who sees the total
relatedness of things by acting as the centre and coordinator, the ‘silent
brother of all things’. Artaud’s writing suggests the surreal might somehow abolish such a separation into subject and object, self and world.
There is an almost pantheistic mystical strain that goes beyond existential fraternity in the desire ‘[s]e laisser emporter par les choses [ . . . et]
pour cela avoir en soi le courant des choses, eˆtre au niveau de leur
courant, eˆtre enWn au niveau de la vie au lieu que nos de´plorables
circonstances mentales nous laissent perpe´tuellement dans l’entredeux’ (i**. 16–17). This mystical impulse is made explicit in ‘une re´volution surre´aliste [ . . . ] vise a` la substance profonde et a` l’ordre de la
pense´e . . . Elle vise a` cre´er avant tout un mysticisme d’un nouveau
genre’ (i**. 219). This ideal state of simple reciprocity with the world
where the barrier between subject and object erected by the mind is not

painful bodies of thought

29

yet in place would, Artaud suggests, generate a new reality: ‘au point ou`
le monde devient sonore et re´sistant en nous, j avec les yeux de qui sent
en soi se refaire les choses, de qui s’attache et se Wxe sur le commencement d’une nouvelle re´alite´’ (i**. 16). There are moments in Artaud’s
1920s writing when it seems that the world is to be the making of the
subject, and that, if the prophylactic of rationalism were done away with,
then the subject might be fertilized by the world. The optimistic notes of
early Surrealism can be heard, then, at times in Artaud’s writings. It is
just that for him the ideal of surreality is something to be posited, not
attained.
Yet overshadowing the aYrmative faith in freeing the mind so that it
might cognize in tune with reality is, for Artaud, the basic experience of
cognitive stalling and the sense that consciousness is a void. ‘J’ai l’air bien
aVreusement pre´occupe´ de de´montrer que je ne pense pas’, writes
Artaud nine months after the appearance of his correspondence with
Rivie`re and a few weeks prior to the appearance of the equally selfanalytical L’Ombilic des Limbes and Le Pe`se-Nerfs, ‘mais je pense [ . . . ] qu’il
vaut mieux eˆtre dans un e´tat d’abdication perpe´tuelle en face de son
esprit’ (i**. 17). It is only by such an abdication of faith in intellectual
prowess that Artaud can allow the outside world to take on a similar
density within (‘le monde devient sonore et re´sistant en nous’ (i**. 16))
and so experience the ‘sentiment [des choses] et leur retentissement en
moi: le retentissement au bout duquel est la pense´e’ (i**. 16). It is
noticeable, though, that Artaud’s texts tell of himself, not of the world.
Despite comments on the need to connect afresh with the material
world, he writes no Rimbaldian impressionistic texts of pure vision. If
literary impressionism is a means of seducing essence from myriad
circumstance, its multiplying of views brings the threat of annihilating
the poet at the centre, and anonymity is a price Artaud is not prepared to
pay. Artaud’s writing on rhapsodic illumination typically never goes
beyond imagining it to actual enactment.
The ideal of pure, simple co-revelation of self and world joins up here
in Artaud’s writing with linguistic failure. The general feeling of his
Surrealist texts is of trying to return back up the lines of thought
underpinning the awareness necessary for writing, with the aim of
capturing reality unmediated by any but the most simple concepts.
Artaud insists that his writing is
notes [ . . . ] mode`les [ . . . qui] s’adressent aux confus de l’esprit, aux aphasiaques par arreˆt de la
langue. Que voila` pourtant bien des notes qui sont au centre de leur objet. Ici la pense´e fait de´faut,
ici l’esprit laisse apercevoir ses membres. Que voila` des notes imbe´ciles, des notes primaires [ . . . ]

30

painful bodies of thought

Mais des notes Wnes vraiment [ . . . ] Ces notes qui me´prisent la langue, qui crachent sur la
pense´e. (i**. 47)

In the attempt to Xee the complacent emptinesses of culturally endorsed
thought—the ‘beˆtise’ Artaud and Surrealism see in rational thinking—
he deploys what he presents as a cognitively superior and (supposedly)
artless failure. For Artaud, true, existentially dense and complex thought
is pre-linguistic, and so unsayable and unwritable, but his ‘notes primaires’ might gesture towards what such thought could be like (and he
rather smugly implies they do). It is by attending to the frictions between
discourse and perceptual experience that the way may be opened to a
new reality. Failure and loss become the hallmark of success and the basis
of recuperation.
Artaud deWnes the Surrealist revolution not just as a rejection of an
inherited cultural and conceptual order but as a rejection of the fundamental ideas that underpin such orders: a faith in the grammaticality of
reality and in the reliability and trustworthiness of cerebration: ‘Le fait
d’une re´volution surre´aliste dans les choses est applicable a` tous les e´tats
de l’esprit, j [ . . . ] a` tous les e´tats du monde au milieu de l’esprit, j [ . . . ] a`
tous les ordres de l’esprit. j Cette re´volution vise a` [ . . . ] la de´pre´ciation
de l’esprit [ . . . ] j au de´nivellement de la pense´e’ (i**. 45). For Artaud the
higher intellectual apparatus cudgels reality into its own form; he rails
against the ‘Esprit-intimidation-des-choses pour les faire entrer dans
l’Esprit’ (i*. 49). Such an attitude means that Artaud ‘doit admettre
jusqu’a` un certain point une mystique surre´aliste’ (i**. 46) to try to
remedy the fact that ‘l’Esprit ne soit pas dans la vie et que la vie ne soit
pas dans l’Esprit’ (i*. 49), and this leads to a dream of a work of art that
would be ‘une porte simplement abouche´e avec la re´alite´’ (i*. 50). Such
complaints and aspirations are common to Surrealist poets writing in the
1920s. Even the image of the open door is part of the Surrealist topos,
generally used to suggest the point sublime lying beyond it where contraries
are magically resolved in a superior reality. But Artaud does not conWne
himself to rejecting reason’s codiWcations on the basis of a gulf between
mind and reality, and he parts company from his peers in complexifying
his account of the barriers to authentic experience. His rejection of
ratiocination has a diVerent thrust, since he places it in the context of
a personalized account of the non-possession of thought; he thus
insists on a second gulf, this time between thought and thinking
subject. Once again, the idea of a doubling within consciousness is
common to much Surrealist poetry. But for Breton, Aragon, and the
practitioners of automatic writing, this distancing of self from self is a

painful bodies of thought

31

positive phenomenon, providing the framework for dictation from the
unconscious. So, if the Surrealist poet ‘ne croit a` l’eYcacite´ de l’esprite´peron, de l’esprit-guillotine, de l’esprit-juge, de l’esprit-docteur’, it is not
the case that ‘il ne se reconnaıˆt aucune pense´e [ . . . ] j Il de´sespe`re de
s’atteindre l’esprit’ (i**. 46) for the ideal of recuperating the unconscious
within consciousness precludes such a credo. The latent solipsism of such
an attitude, as well as his estrangement from mainstream Surrealist
poetics and philosophy, will become increasingly pronounced as he
problematizes the relationship between thought and thinking subject.
This solipsistic tendency is already evident in ‘A la Grande Nuit’,
Artaud’s rejoinder to his expulsion from the Surrealist group (i**. 59–66).
For him Surrealism is a war cry against the derisory signiWcance allotted
to the individual and his thought: ‘Que chaque homme ne veuille rien
conside´rer au dela` de sa sensibilite´ profonde, de son moi intime, voila`
pour moi le point de vue de la Re´volution inte´grale’ (i**. 60 n.). This idea
of changing reality by an inner revolution had been very much in the air
in the last quartile of the nineteenth century with the fad for Vedic,
Buddhist, and Cabalistic thought, and had been carried forward by the
German Expressionists, who believed in ‘Revolution as an act of the
spirit’ (in Lothar Schreyer’s words). It could also be taken as the watchword of Artaud’s writing career. By functioning at a higher level than
that of the thinking subject, the Surrealist movement as personiWed in
Breton abandoned, for Artaud, any claim to being truly revolutionary. If
the aim is to ‘de´saxer le fondement actuel des choses, de changer l’angle
de la re´alite´’ (i**. 60 n.), this can, for Artaud, be eVected only by a radical
reconceptualization and re-engineering of individual consciousness
according to new, non-rationalistic principles. This total focusing on
the inner self, however, leads Artaud to neglect the outside world in
whose name this rethinking of subjecthood is initially undertaken. The
withdrawal into inner space is Artaud’s early Kehre which sets his course
on a reconceptualization of the self when he should, according to his own
principles, be writing towards an interpenetration of self and world.
(This interpenetration is announced at the end of his writing career on
the dubious grounds that the world, perceived as too threatening to the
integrity of the self, is redeWned and placed under the dominion of a self
that subsumes and contains all reality.) Artaud’s gloominess about ideational consciousness leads to the ironic situation where, to escape from
the narrow conWnes of the inherited idea of subjecthood, he shuts himself
up in a lifetime’s redeWnition of the subject. By digging ever deeper into
the diYculties of thought and widening the gulfs between thought and

32

painful bodies of thought

reality, between thinking subject and thought—by distancing the meaning-making self from signiWer from signiWed from referent—Artaud can
head only towards solipsism.
So Artaud’s work becomes an endless commenting and theorizing
about the paucity of thought and its many hiatuses, indefatigably reporting the losses attendant upon thinking. The Correspondance avec Jacques
Rivie`re is famously not about its declared subject matter, the (negligible)
literary merits of the poems Artaud sent to the Nouvelle Revue franc¸aise for
publication, but instead reports the blockages and losses he holds to be
inherent to thinking. L’Ombilic des Limbes and Le Pe`se-Nerfs continue the
attempt to give tongue, in fragmentary form, to the discontinuities of his
mental life, taking the project forward to an endeavoured prise de conscience
of thought-in-troubled-action. Artaud displays an obsession with the
relationship between thinking subject and thought, and even texts that
would not initially seem to be about thought—for example, his imaginary
biographical sketches of Paulo Uccello (i*. 54–6; i*. 140–2; i**. 9–13)— are
soon drawn into reXections about the complex relationship that exists
between a thinking, writing subject Antonin Artaud who imaginatively
projects himself into a thought-about subject Paulo Uccello. The complications inherent to thinking, to a world view founded on the separation
of thinking subject from object of thought, are the staple constituent of
Artaud’s 1920s writings. What, then, does he have to say about the inner
fracture between subject and object of thought?
Clearly, Artaud suggests that thinking is a far more complex matter
than common parlance would suggest. His experience of thought is that
it collapses at moments of great intellectual promise. These impediments
to thought are described as amounting to an ‘eVrondrement central de
l’aˆme, une espe`ce d’e´rosion, essentielle a` la fois et fugace, de la pense´e’
(i*. 28) The commas here puncture the breathing of the phrasing, and
this, together with the interwoven phonic patterning, expulse the term
‘pense´e’ to the end of the sentence, where it sticks out awkwardly like
some appendage on its prepositional stalk. He makes it clear that
the problem is not that his wielding of language fails to do justice to
the complexities of his thought. It is thought itself that is Xawed: ‘Je parle
de la vie physique, de la vie substantielle de la pense´e [ . . . ], je parle de ce
minimum de vie pensante a` l’e´tat brut,—non arrive´ jusqu’a` la parole,
mais capable au besoin d’y arriver’ (i*. 66). The raw material of mental
activity introduces non-identity into thought; it is the very stuV of
thought in its brute state that is to blame: ‘ce qui me caracte´rise est
[ . . . ] une extinction dans la racine et dans l’œuf de toutes les forces en

painful bodies of thought

33

nous ante´rieures a` l’esprit’ (i**. 167).11 Given that it is the brute stuV of
thought that is lost, Artaud cannot know the modes of loss. Loss occurs in
a no man’s land between nascent thought and consciousness of thought;
it is in this sense that Artaud speaks of the ‘inconsciente minute’ at which
loss occurs (i*. 42). Consciousness cannot be witness to the loss that it
experiences on the limits of its domain, but it can testify that loss has
occurred. There is an unnameable ‘quelque chose qui de´truit ma pense´e
[ . . . ] Un quelque chose de furtif qui m’enle`ve les mots’ undercutting
thought (i*. 28). Artaud can but witness, with all that the term implies of
enforced passivity, the ravishing of what language calls his thought, but
which is revealed in its breakdown to be not fully his. He can know only
the after-eVects of this action, can state only that ‘[j]e sais comment c¸a se
traYque la`-dedans’ (i*. 30). The ‘c¸a’ cannot be named, the events cannot
be speciWed (‘se traYque’); ‘c¸a se traYque’ is all Artaud can say or do
about his alienation within thought.
Given this inability to be aware of the functioning of his mind, the
leading statement of Artaud’s early ars poetica—‘[l]a` ou` d’autres proposent des œuvres je ne pre´tends pas autre chose que de montrer mon
esprit’ (i*. 49)—is all the more astonishingly ambitious. Surrealism insists
of course on the fact that art is not a separate, specialized aesthetic
discursive act but like any language act engages and expresses the totality
of the personality. Beauty is thus irrelevant and replaced by authentic
self-expression. In L’Ombilic des Limbes and Le Pe`se-Nerfs Artaud implicitly
claims success for this project of collapsing writing and life onto each
other and so revealing the mind as it is. And it is true that there is no
Xavour of Wctionality, especially in Le Pe`se-Nerfs; Artaud sticks to his
subject matter, himself, and the reader can feel, however misguidedly,
that this is Artaud. The fragmented, notelike jottings seem to allow us to
accompany Artaud as he observes his own thought, without any distance
of literary artiWce. It is as if we were sitting in on his thinking, eavesdropping on his inner voice. But this very transparency and apparent
immediateness is the strongest proof of the literarity guaranteeing communication. These texts are, as he says in a diVerent context, ‘des notes
Wnes vraiment’—very sly writing.12
11
Since Artaud Wnds fault with the stuV of thought, not its functioning, the objection that
the lucidity of his self-analyses belies the judgements of those analyses is pre-empted: ‘Ma
lucidite´ est entie`re, plus aiguise´e que jamais’, he writes to his friend and psychoanalyst
Dr Allendy, ‘c’est l’objet auquel l’appliquer qui me manque, la substance interne’ (i**. 145).
12
In the context of the Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re, Artaud’s evident desire to
manœuvre Rivie`re into publishing his texts should lead us to be careful about reading
the texts as Artaud’s pure voice. Despite claims to be conducting a ‘confession mentale’

34

painful bodies of thought

Moreover, though the texts of L’Ombilic des Limbes and Le Pe`se-Nerfs
might make an implicit claim to be striking right to the heart of thought,
in fact they remain on the sidelines, commenting, describing, theorizing.
The writing is far from guileless and far removed from automatism.
Artaud does not show his mind but speaks of his ruminations about
why thought is not the epiphany of vitality he imagines. We are never
given the mind a` vif but instead reXections about Artaud’s past experience of thought: the present moment of thought is banished from the
text. Nor does Artaud in fact tell of the impediments involved in the
thinking processes: impediments are taken as given, so he concentrates
on the after-traces of lost thought. The phenomenon that has inspired
this intellectual and literary adventure is invisible: it is pre-text. Artaud’s
early texts are haunted by a shadow of absence: ‘Je parle moi de
l’absence de trou, d’une sorte de souVrance froide et sans images, sans
sentiments, et qui est comme un heurt indescriptible d’avortements’
(i*. 69) where the echoes of a cliche´d decadent melancholy further
desubstantialize any putative extra-literary referent.
Thought, then, is doubly absent, since both thought and its loss are
unknowable. This is why, after these early collections, Artaud’s texts
become an unstoppable theorizing machine about a self that would not
be subject to loss, a self that would be able to show itself. The fact that
loss cannot be told paradoxically provides the stimulus to write. Loss
becomes the Wrst condition of self-exploration through writing.
Such an attitude underpins the Correspondance avec Jacques Rivie`re. The
insistence on the interpenetration of art and life is, of course, in no way
speciWc to Surrealist poetry. Proust’s great novel, the publication of
which had started only ten or so years previously (in 1913), was intimately
concerned with capturing the kaleidoscopic quality of lived selfhood in
the work, and it was still sending shock waves through French, and
indeed Western culture.13 But Artaud, rather than regarding writing as
a way of attempting to capture the self, sees it rather as a way of
theorizing about the impossibility of such an undertaking. Where other
authors transpose the oft-frustrated quest to express the self into Wction,
(i*. 27) it is more a case of vide me than mea culpa. Artaud’s tone swings from the toadying to
the petulantly insulting, and he does not contain his glee when Rivie`re proposes to publish
the correspondence. Artaud no longer takes weeks but replies by return of post with the glib
grandiloquence of a prosateur: ‘votre ide´e me plaıˆt, elle me re´jouit, elle me comble’ (i*. 40). It
must not be forgotten that the Correspondance originated not as a literary text but as a
correspondence, with all the desires and subterfuges of any such interaction.
13
Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu, 4 vols., ed. Jean-Yves Tadie´ (Bibliothe`que de
la Ple´iade; Paris: Gallimard, 1987–9).

painful bodies of thought

35

Artaud instead develops an imaginative (Wctive) theory that purports to
account for the diYculties that beset the undertaking of self-expression.
The kind of identity between art and life of which Artaud speaks is far
more literalist, for he sees writing and existing as identical: the concern
lest his thought ‘ne parvienne pas l i t t e´ r a i r e m e n t a` exister’ is
described as ‘tout le proble`me de ma pense´e qui est en jeu. Il s’agit
pour moi de rien moins que de savoir si j’ai ou non le droit de continuer a`
penser, en vers ou en prose’ (i*. 25). There is no distinction between
existence as a thinking subject and writing. The ‘lambeaux’ of his
meagre texts are valued not for aesthetic reasons—‘la litte´rature proprement dite ne m’inte´resse qu’assez peu’ (i*. 38)—but for existential
reasons, since they are ‘les quelques manifestations d’existence spirituelle
que j’ai pu me donner a` moi-meˆme’ (i*. 24). (In Le Con d’Ire`ne (1928)
Aragon too explicitly states that writing is his only way of thinking.)
In rejecting literary Wnality Artaud follows Surrealist practice that
employs poetic form primarily to help emancipate the mind and thus
reveal ‘la matie`re mentale’. But he goes further and, in a peculiar move,
displaces his identity onto the page: the writing subject is to be one with,
as opposed to just revelatory of, the existing subject. The underlying idea
would seem to be that writing is the only means for self-knowledge, as the
very failings of writing expose those aspects of his thought that are truly
issued from his self and not mere borrowings from discourse. It is
precisely and uniquely in the failure of writing that Artaud hopes to
Wnd his mind. He fully exists only in writing and can fully know his self
and his thoughts only in writing. Artaud’s later, dominant belief that he
could change his identity and biology via writing (the corps sans organes to
be delivered by the text) is therefore to be found in embryo form at the
beginning of his literary career. The great value Artaud places on writing
arises from its unique ability to provoke self-awareness in a way that the
alterity of thought could seem to make impossible.
This idea of the text as a work of apperception is, of course, one of the
most important ideas of Surrealist theory and at the heart of the practice
of automatism. In the Premier manifeste Surrealism is famously deWned as
the means ‘exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par e´crit, soit de toute autre
manie`re, le fonctionnement re´el de la pense´e. Dicte´e de la pense´e, en
l’absence de tout controˆle exerce´ par la raison, en dehors de toute
pre´occupation morale ou esthe´tique.’14 It is thus an undertaking seeking
knowledge of the true functioning of thought. As suggested above, the
14
Andre´ Breton, Manifestes du surre´alisme (Collection Folio/Essais; Paris: Gallimard,
1985), 36.

36

painful bodies of thought

idea of the duality of the self is common to Surrealist poetry, and Louis
Aragon’s verse often displays a sense of the doubling that occurs in
introspection, an experience that does not induce despair so much as
intrigued self-observation: ‘J’e´coute au Wn fond de moi le bruit de mes
propres pas s’e´tendre j J’entends ma propre chanson qui se fatigue de se
plaindre.’15 For Breton the doubling of the self is an even more positive
experience than it is for Aragon; he considers that the attendant shock
plays a major role in the willed ‘de´se´ducation des sens’ that must be
undertaken if true thought is to be discovered beneath the overlay of
literary and philosophical thought structures. Doubling is, for Breton,
the basis of self-knowledge: ‘Je veillais sur moi sur ma pense´e,’ he writes
conWdently.16 The Surrealist poet can speak of the alterity of the self with
conWdence, since the activity of Surrealism was to allow the poet to
embrace the totality of previously occluded mental forces: ‘l’ide´e de
surre´alisme tend simplement a` la re´cupe´ration totale de notre force
psychique par un moyen qui n’est autre que la descente vertigineuse
en nous, l’illumination syste´matique des lieux cache´s [ . . . ], la promenade perpe´tuelle en pleine zone interdite.’17 This descent into the self,
even if described as ‘vertigineuse’, is evidently not perceived as dangerous: it is a ‘promenade’ that results in ‘illumination’. However, if Artaud
is to gain self-knowledge through writing, it is not by tricking the
unconscious onto the page by automatic writing or induced slips of the
pen.18 If the Surrealists left themselves open to the charge that they
allowed the unconscious to usurp the throne of reason, Artaud is far
more circumspect and views the unconscious with suspicion as the
repository of forces emanating from society. It is the way the mind
works, or rather does not work, and not its hidden content, that interests
Artaud. For Artaud the descent into oneself brings agony and paralysis:
‘Je souVre d’une eVroyable maladie de l’esprit’ (i*. 24).19 Whereas for the
15

Louis Aragon, Le Roman inacheve´ (Paris: Gallimard, 1956), 182.
Andre´ Breton, ‘Les Attitudes Spectrales’, in Clair de terre (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), 114.
17
Breton, Manifestes du surre´alisme, 86.
18
It would seem that Artaud never tried his hand at automatic writing. As someone
passionately interested in the self, it could be supposed that he would have thrown himself
enthusiastically into any project susceptible of yielding such fruits as the Surrealists claimed
for automatism.
19
An intriguing parallel suggests itself here to the Proustian narrator when he Wnds his
artistic creation threatened: ‘tachant de trouver un sujet ou` je pusse faire tenir une signiWcation philosophique inWnie, mon esprit s’arreˆtait de fonctionner, je ne voyais plus que le
vide en face de mon attention, je sentais que je n’avais pas de ge´nie ou peut-eˆtre une
maladie ce´re´brale l’empeˆchait de naıˆtre’ (A la recherche du temps perdu, i. 170). Proust’s irony
and lightness of touch tell of the world of diVerence between the two writers.
16


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