"Born to protest:" the "disciplined and feral, interrogative resistance"
of Antonin Artaud
Nobody has ever written or painted, sculpted, modeled, built, invented
except to get out of hell.
Actor, poet, playwright, artist, provocateur and innovative visionary, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) is as infamous for his biography as his output. Institutionalized for nearly 9 years, a victim of over 50 electroshock treatments, Artaud was an outcast and drug addict who committed suicide at the peak of his creativity. The lucidity of his work, especially his vitriolic critique of society, is obscured by the extremities of his life. Like many difficult or dissident artists, he is marginalized. Below are excerpts from Stephen Barber’s incisive biography, Blows and Bombs (Creation, 2003). Barber’s text appears in quotations and Artaud’s in italics. Excerpts from Artaud's essay "Van Gogh: Suicided by Society" are further below, followed by excerpts from another anthology. As a postscript, some original Artaud-inspired poetry concludes this eclectic notebook.
“His work exists as a strange set of traces.”
“Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty – an artistic project that was designed to uproot culture and burn it back to life.”
“…he developed an attitude of complete resistance…”
“Artaud’s life sustains itself only through attack, in reaction to failure and humiliation.”
“Writing becomes a committed intervention which cracks censorship wide open…”
“Madness becomes raw material to be treated with great irony and great anger…[his] refusal undermines and unscreens notions of psychosis. It blatantly uses madness, puts madness to work…”
“It is this special sensitivity of Artaud’s writings towards a pervasive social complicity in individual repression…”
“…he possessed a magisterial and monumental capacity for reactivation and reinvention.”
“…a final clarity which is both disciplined and feral.”
I have need of angels. Enough hell has swallowed me for too many years. But finally understand this – I have burned up one hundred thousand lives already, from the strength of my pain.
“…the fragment – the ‘failed’ text…more vital and exploratory than the ‘whole’ or ‘successful’ poem…Artaud articulated his independence from and refusal of the coherent, unified aesthetic object. His fragments failed to incorporate themselves within a specific poetic culture; this intentional failure ensured that they would be banished into the territory of the self which was A’s only subject matter…A’s fragments are exceptional in their willed upheaval and contraction of the language of poetry and the imagery of the self.”
“…the incoherent, & inherently wild & vocal material of poetry must be exposed in all of its independent & explicit pain, so that its fragmented sounds can be given breath & life.”
“…he now wrote fluently of his language as being dangerous & volatile.”
If I drive in a violent word like a nail, I want it to suppurate in the sentence like a hundred-holed ecchymosis.’
I, always so restless in my body, I understand…that there is a lie to being alive, against which we are born to protest.
“Writing at the borderline between control and spontaneity…he directed his poetic language as fragmentary incursions into a territory of physical suffering and dispossession…the creative gesture was always doubled by its own loss & obliteration.”
“Artaud’s poetry ricochets between expositions of nervous pain & linguistic incapacity.”
I am in a state of possession, of negation…I want to have the strength to need nothing at all, to exist in a state of absolute disappearance…a solitude without compromise.
“ …he wanted to reconstitute the violence and independence of dreaming…a reinvention of cinema based around its visceral, transforming propulsion against the spectator’s physical reflexes and reactions…poetry of expulsion and refusal.”
“The force of Artaud’s film language emerges from its density. Elements are suppressed or subtracted in order to be articulated. Narrative is broken, while the image is pounded down to compact visual sensation.”
“…necessitate a transformation of the viewing position, and instigate resistance to the process of representation… [his] own position…parallels that interrogative resistance.”
The overlapping of images and movements will, by the conspiracies of objects, of silences, of cries and of rhythms, arrive at the creation of a true physical language based on signs and not words.
There is, in all poetry, an essential contradiction. Poetry is the grinding of a multiplicity that throws out flames. And poetry, which brings back order, first resuscitates disorder.
Jean Dequeker on Artaud: “Through the creative rage with which he exploded the bolts of reality and all the latches of the surreal, I saw him blindly dig out the eyes of his image.”
If you dug a little bit into the world of Breton with a spiked stick, you would find worms.
“In Coleridge the Traitor, Artaud created a vision of a virulent poetry composed of blood, mucous, cruelty and insurrection…In Artaud’s view, Coleridge had subsequently become scared of his poetic power and had, as a result, lost his claim…”
The true theatre has always appeared to me as the exercise of a dangerous, terrible action… Because the theatre is this crucible of fire…
of the writer, of the poet
is not to cowardly shut himself away…
but on the contrary to emerge
the mind of the public
what use is he?
from Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society
(in Artaud Anthology, City Lights, 1965.)
And thus, demented as this assertion may seem, present-day life goes on in its old atmosphere of prurience, of anarchy, of disorder… of chronic lunacy, of bourgeois inertia, of psychic anomaly…of deliberate dishonesty and downright hypocrisy…
in short, of organized crime.
Things are bad because the sick conscious now has a vital interest
in not getting over its sickness.
And what is a genuine lunatic?
He is a man who prefers to go mad, in the social sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain higher idea of human honor...
For a lunatic is a man that society does not want to hear but wants to prevent from uttering certain intolerable truths.
In every demented soul there is a misunderstood genius who frightens people and who has never found an escape from the stranglings that life has prepared for him, except in delirium.
Medicine is born of evil, if it is not born of disease, and it has even, on the contrary, provoked sickness out of whole cloth in order to give itself a reason for being…
The most important thing in the world to Van Gogh was his painter’s imagination, his terrible, fanatical, apocalyptic visionary’s imagination.
No one has ever written or painted, sculpted, modeled, built, invented,
except to get out of hell.
There are no ghosts in Van Gogh’s pictures, no visions, no hallucinations.
This is the torrid truth of a 2 p.m. sun.
A slow fertile nightmare elucidated little by little.
Without nightmare and without effect.
But pre-natal suffering is there.
It is the wet sheen of a pasture, of the flat surface of a wheat field
which is there, ready to be uprooted.
And one day nature will have to take this into account.
Just as society will have to reckon with his premature death.
For mankind does not want to take the trouble to live, to take part in the
spiritual elbowing of the forces that make up reality…
Only perpetual struggle explains a peace that is only transitory…
let him who once knew hot to look at a human face take a look at the self-portrait of Van Gogh…
Painted by an extra-lucid Van Gogh…
I do not know of a single psychiatrist who would know how to scrutinize
a man’s face with such overpowering strength, dissecting its irrefutable psychology
as if with a knife.
Perhaps the only one before Van Gogh [with this eye] was the unhappy Nietzsche who had the same power to undress the soul…
One day Van Gogh’s executioners arrived, as they did for Gérard de Nerval, Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe and Lautréamont.
Those who one day said to him:
And now, enough, Van Gogh, to your grave, we’ve had our fill of your genius,
and as for the infinite, the infinite belongs to us.
For it is not because of his search for the infinite that Van Gogh died…
he died from seeing the infinite refused him by the rabble of all those who thought to withhold it from him during his own life;
and Van Gogh could have found enough infinite to live on for his whole life-span had not the bestial mind of the masses wanted to appropriate it to feed their own debaucheries, which have never had anything to do with painting or poetry.
Besides, one does not commit suicide alone.
No one was ever born alone.
Nor has anyone died alone.
(Translated by Mary Beach and Lawrence Ferlinghetti)
from Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period of Antonin Artaud. (translated by Clayton Eshleman, Exact Change, 1995.)
“Antonin Artaud is one of the greatest examples in art of the imaginative retrieval of a life that was beyond repair.”
Thinking means something more to me than not being completely dead. It means being in touch with myself at every moment; it means not ceasing for a single moment to feel oneself in one’s inmost being…it means always feeling one’s thought equal to one’s thought, however inadequate the form one is able to give it.
“Anais Nin, in the audience [for the essay/lecture “The Theatre and the Plague”] described what happened:” He spat out his anger. ‘They always want to hear about; they want to hear an objective conference…and I want to give them the experience itself, the plague itself, so they will be terrified, and awaken. I want to awaken them. They do not realize that they are dead.'"
“Such support was immensely invigorating to the reengaged Artaud” [emerging from nearly 9 years of confinement. Financial support came in the form] “of a benefit auction from such writers and artists as Char, Joyce, Stein, Césaire, Sartre, Bellmer, Chagall, Picasso and Giacometti.”
“While Artaud cannot be called a shaman, there is a shamanic resemblance to his life and work… Shamanic quest, initiation and practice often involve…a spiritual crisis…Such a crisis can lead to a vision quest, which can be prolonged and excruciating…the novice must undergo a transformation involving suffering, symbolic death and resurrection.”
“Artaud enables us to reflect on a level of suffering and fantasy response to that suffering that has been traditionally repressed in the art of poetry.”
“In our exploded and wallpapered age, I have found that in Artaud the ancient, black springs of poetry are graspable… Artaud is the stamina of poetry to enact in a machine-gunned hearth the ember of song.”
The number of eminent artist colleagues (listed above) who contributed to support the maligned and abused Artaud is a clear measure of the esteem in which he was held. The excerpts from his essay on Van Gogh are even more relevant 65 years later. A prototype of the engagé “performance artist,” Artaud’s ambitious vision remains unrealized, despite his influence on every generation of artists to follow in his haunting wake. Defying convention with unflinching courage, Artaud bore the knife-edge tension of a life lived against the grain. Too easily dismissed, ignored or forgotten, Artaud’s voice is an essential witness to the dangers of conformity and corruption. His work is a vibrantly original example of the mind and heart and soul aflame in one body.
Fragments after Artaud
it wants to take us
over by any means
force or cunning or both and
numb our senses dull
us down to yawning
acquiescence till we give
up let go our guard and die…
it confuses elements
alchemy requires calculations
to cheat us
swapping cash for
flesh mixing ever
combustible creativity with
our volatile sensitivity
to fluorescent light
“Play upon your
pipes pretty artist”
this feral discipline
is too strange
to comprehend which
is why we’re