Antonin Artaud
Antonin Artaud; drawing by David Levine

You are in Paris, a city still gray from occupation and unsure of peace. The tiny theater overflows with people, all looking important or intense. Someone behind you is identifying them: André Gide in a wool cap, Albert Camus, André Breton recently returned from New York, Henri Michaux, Jean Paulhan, and a crowd of prominent actors and directors. They have all come to hear a one-man lecture-performance by Artaud.

Artaud comes on stage alone. Dressed like a clochard, he looks emaciated and a little startled. When he starts reading from the pile of papers, his voice sounds emasculated, yet undeniably powerful. There is some heckling, then a tight silence. Artaud declaims, whispers, roars, and comes to an awkward pause. He seems to have lost his place or his nerve, shuffles his papers, takes his head in his hands as if he were giving up. Yet he starts again. Now he is not reading but haranguing the audience. “Saliva.” “Syphilis.” “Piss.” “Electroshock.” He stops to catch his breath, then reads again.

It is not a mind that has created things

but a body, which got along by wallowing in debauchery with its prick crammed up its nose

Klaver striva

Cavour Tavina

Scaver Kavina

Okar Triva

The denunciation of language, of sex, of himself goes on and on. Artaud appears a man possessed, lunatic beyond recall. Yet he remains an actor, a painful ham, clowning, mocking himself, spouting his outrage and conscious of his excess, forcing it. With the audience at bay in front of him, he is watching the combustion of his own mind. He wants to drop not words but bombs. There is no end to it, no stopping him, until Gide climbs on stage and throws his arms around the exhausted performer.

From this dream you cannot awake. For it is history, Artaud’s performance, Tête-à-tête, at the Vieux-Colombier theater in January, 1947.1 He died fourteen months later.

In the Sixties Artaud became an even more powerful presence than he had been in 1947, and far beyond the cafés and theaters of Paris. His cultural eclecticism had been astute and prophetic. He had concocted a magic amalgam of theatrical style, occult and esoteric knowledge (from Zen to acupuncture), antiliterary pronouncements, drug cultism, and revolutionary rhetoric without politics. Naturally, the theater felt his impact first.

In his collection of essays and manifestoes, The Theater and Its Double (1938; English translation, 1958). Artaud proclaimed that the theater, mobilized into total spectacle by the director’s commanding imagination and subservient to no literary text, should become as powerful an agent of cultural and emotional change as a plague, or cruelty, or hunger. During the Fifties and Sixties, these (far from new) ideas traveled fast. They played a key role in the articulation of the anti-aesthetic mode ultimately named the “happening.” For it was John Cage’s reading of Artaud (in French, suggested to him by Pierre Boulez before the translation appeared) that provided the impetus for the original multi-media show at Black Mountain College in 1952. Cage persuaded Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham to participate in that remarkable performance.

A few years later, “underground” newspapers began pirating Artaud’s writings. City Lights published an unfortunate anthology of his works. During its exciting formative period the Living Theater company treated Artaud’s books as semi-gospel, as did the directors behind La Mama, Cino, and Dionysus 69. Peter Brook launched the Theater of Cruelty in London in 1964, and his production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade derived from his absorption of certain of Artaud’s ideas. Jerzy Grotowski, founder of the Polish Laboratory Theater, wrote a fine article (Les Temps Modernes, April 1967) denying that Artaud had formulated any method but calling him a “prophet.” By the early Seventies, however, people working in directing and production were turning away from total theater and began to forget Artaud.

Even though they make strange bed-fellows, Artaud’s admirers in the literary world have been more faithful, particularly in France. The established Gallimard publishing house has been bringing out his complete works since 1956—thirteen volumes to date and probably two to go. Marxist and Maoist critics, directing influential reviews like Tel Quel and Change, claimed Artaud as their intellectual property. The unconstituted group known as the structuralists chose two totem figures (after Mallarmé) to flaunt in front of the philistines: Georges Bataille, pornographer-economist, and Artaud, the whirling dervish of literature as self-performance. Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, and particularly Derrida have accorded Artaud a significant place in their works of cultural psychoanalysis. They have good grounds. For the primary meaning of Artaud’s work reaches beyond theater fashions and literary theory to pose tense questions about the relation of civilized living to madness and acting.

It is appropriate, therefore, that a major collection of Artaud’s writings should appear now with a long essay by Susan Sontag. In these straightforward translations by Helen Weaver, Artaud’s voice is clearly audible, even in the texts that tremble on the threshold between poetry and prose. He needs no amplification.2 The chronological format of the volume, which intersperses all forms of Artaud’s writing including letters, works effectively to support Sontag’s thesis—namely that he produced not a literary oeuvre but a moi, a self. Considering the choices that had to be made, I find the selection excellent and will complain only about three serious omissions: the stunning “Preamble” Artaud wrote in 1946 for his complete works; the bitterly polemical open letters he published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1925 (one appears here) and two more he wrote in 1946; and some of the essays from The Theater and Its Double. Sontag’s introduction (which originally appeared in The New Yorker three years ago) is the most ambitious piece of thinking on Artaud in English. It constructs several dimensions of significance around him, and I shall come back to it. In all, an important book.



When Artaud arrived in Paris in 1920, aged twenty-three, his family and his doctors had sent him there as part of the treatment for lingering nervous disorders. He had a history of early meningitis, neuralgia, facial spasms, and stuttering. In Marseilles his mother cared for him attentively. During the war the army discharged him after nine months, and he spent several years in rest homes in France and Switzerland. Literature and painting had interested him from an early age. In Paris, he remained under loose medical surveillance.

Ambitious and talented, Artaud threw himself into multiple activities. He wrote intensely poetic texts about inner states of consciousness. Charles Dullin trained him as an actor; later roles came from the Pitoëffs and the films. In 1922 he fell in love with the Rumanian actress Génica Athanasiou. After two seasons of excitement and happiness, they discovered their incompatibility and gradually separated. Génica was the only great love of his life. Through the painter André Masson, Artaud joined the Surrealists and in 1925 took charge of their “Research Bureau” concerned with everybody’s unconscious, the neuroses of culture, and what we would call today the quality of life.

Practically single-handed he wrote and edited the third number of the review La Révolution Surréaliste. For six months his personal insurrection outstripped that of the rest of the group. But by the end of 1926 the Surrealists sacked him after a violent exchange of letters, because, among other things, he refused to follow them into the Communist party. Meanwhile he had published two thin volumes of poetry. Dissatisfied with his film roles, he founded the Alfred Jarry Theater, whose experimental productions usually provoked some form of scandal. Between 1923 and 1928 Artaud was able to develop his talents and keep all his projects moving. He was already on opium and laudanum.

But by 1929 his theater faltered and he was left with a pile of aborted plans. His thinking about the theater was directed into new channels by a trip to Berlin to act in Pabst’s film of The Threepenny Opera, by a performance of Balinese dancers, and by a new interest in Mexican culture. In 1935 he staged and acted in a memorable but (even by his standards) unsatisfactory performance of his own play, The Cenci. The following year he spent nine months in Mexico in pursuit of the rites of a truly primitive culture. The principal product of this second period was neither The Cenci nor the Mexican texts but the lectures and manifestoes collected in The Theater and Its Double.

In 1937, unable to break his long-standing drug habit and behaving in a highly unstable manner, Artaud left for Ireland. He claimed he was returning St. Patrick’s cane, an object he carried around with him in the streets and cafés of Paris. A few months later he came back to France—in a straitjacket. The first five years of his confinement were spent in the most degrading and debilitating of mental hospitals. Then his mother and some friends intervened during the war to have him transferred to a private institution in Rodez in south-central France. Dr. Ferdière, a widely cultured and sympathetic young psychiatrist, gave Artaud electroshock treatments, allowed him considerable freedom, and encouraged him to write and paint again. As Artaud gradually improved, his Paris friends clamored for his release and finally obtained it. He survived nearly two years of postwar Paris.

Partly inspired by the controversy and cultism that swirled around him, Artaud was writing actively again during the last months. Van Gogh, the Man Driven to Suicide by Society, is a frenzied autobiographical document. At the Vieux-Colombier reading in 1947 he unlimbered the savage poetic texts he was producing at the time. His last major work was a program commissioned by the government radio. In a matter of weeks he wrote, rehearsed, and recorded An End to God’s Judgment, an anti-American, scatological, blasphemous scenario of incoherent power. At the last moment the director of the French radio refused permission for its broadcast. Artaud died a month later in March 1948—of cancer according to one diagnosis, according to another from the intestinal effects of laudanum and other drugs.


This steeplechase career calls for several observations. Artaud was a poète maudit, a pariah, only in a limited sense. His nervous condition caused him genuine physical suffering during much of his life and led him to drugs. But socially and artistically he was not only well treated but given special protection. Despite his metaphysical refusal to acknowledge natural birth as his origin, he remained attached to and attentive to his mother. Elegant patronesses supported his theatrical projects. Established publishers accepted and even sought out his most idiosyncratic works. Through an uncle, he had a special entry into theater and film circles in Paris. Friends raised money to send him to Mexico, and the Mexican government itself sponsored his trip to the Tarahumara region. The years of confinement from 1937 to 1943 must have been frightful. Then he was transferred to Rodez by special dispensation and finally freed. Artaud’s myth of himself, mediated through van Gogh, as “driven to suicide by society” will not pass muster. He was a favorite son from the start.

Secondly, madness, the real possibility of losing his grip on himself, was never far off. He was not at home in his own being. He could not stomach himself, body or mind. Yet for fear of losing any part of himself (images of defecation and parturition run through his writings), he had to live inside the ulcer of consciousness, the mind devouring itself. In such circumstances it becomes very difficult to distinguish lucidity from lunacy. His first important publication was an exchange of letters with the prominent editor Jacques Rivière, who rejected Artaud’s poems and published their correspondence instead. In those letters Artaud describes how “my thought abandons me…a sickness that affects the essence of my being…a genuine paralysis.” He began his literary career with a histrionic plea that he couldn’t write anything worthwhile. There is no evident reason not to believe him when he says that he risks losing his mind the way the rest of us might get a headache or a chill. Twenty years later he was still writing elaborately staged letters, this time from the mental hospital in Rodez, proclaiming not his sickness but his higher sanity.

For considerable periods in the Twenties and early Thirties Artaud seems to have kept a grip on himself. At other times, in spite of friends’ claims to the contrary, he simply went mad. St. Patrick’s cane, the “magic” stiletto given him as he stepped off the boat in Cuba, the spell cast on him by masturbating Indians in Mexico, the obsession with feces, the conspiracy of angels that led to his confinement—these were neither jokes nor metaphors. There is little reason to contest the judicious opinion of one of Artaud’s oldest and most loyal friends, André Breton.

In a down-to-earth way, a man is connected to the society in which he lives by a contract which forbids him certain kinds of external behavior at the risk of seeing himself locked up in an asylum (or prison). There can be no doubt that Artaud’s behavior on the boat coming back from Ireland in 1937 belonged to that category. What I would call “stepping over the line” consists in losing sight of these prohibitions and of the sanctions one risks in transgressing them, while yielding to an irresistible impulse.

My third observation on Artaud’s career partly redeems the first two. In spite of the precariousness of Artaud’s material and mental life, he could be an indefatigable worker. He read voraciously and compensated for a spotty education by building up a large though erratic knowledge of literature, esoterica, mythology, and history. For nearly ten years he earned his keep as an actor. He carried on an extensive and significant correspondence with many people, especially with Jean Paulhan, the editor who had replaced Jacques Rivière at the Nouvelle Revue Française. Paule Thévenin, the person closest to him in the last months and editor of his complete works, describes how he was constantly writing in a notebook he carried with him—in the metro, in cafés. He never ceased disciplining himself physically through exercises and experiments in body and voice control. This broken man of many failures left a long record of accomplishments, published and performed. There is no sluggard here. The notoriety he achieved in his last months may even have corresponded fairly closely to his deepest ambitions. Though his writings were more frenzied than ever then, he apparently achieved periods of tranquillity.

The question that inevitably arises here is whether Artaud’s undeniable talent as an artist developed because of or in spite of his pathological condition. He was not oblivious to the dilemma. “In every madman there is an unknown genius,” he affirms in his little book on van Gogh. Yet the question is inept and simplistic, whereas the evaluation of his case demands great subtlety. Soon after arriving in Paris, Artaud responded to what he repeatedly called mon mal—both illness and evil—by becoming hugely attentive to it. He affirmed it as the center of his being and condemned it as the flaw in his talent. He put his sickness squarely center stage. His correspondence with Jacques Rivière does this so successfully that Rivière was impressed and moved by the theatricality of Artaud’s self-awareness. When Rivière tried to confine his comments to the poems, Artaud snarled, “I offered myself to you as a mental case, a genuine psychic anomaly, and you answered with a literary opinion on poems I didn’t care about.” By publishing the letters, Rivière reinforced the pattern. Artaud became an egomaniac of his own cleft condition.

In this light, the choice of the theater as a career was consistent, even if devastating. For Artaud never wanted to play anyone but Artaud. In person he was always impressive. Photographs show deeply sculpted features devoid of relaxation. Handsome and dandified as a young man, he became increasingly negligent of his dress and defiant in bearing. “He carried around with him the landscape of a Gothic novel, rent by flashes of lightning.” Breton caught the effectiveness of Artaud’s persona. But there is far less agreement about his success as a stage actor. Neither Dullin nor the Pitoëffs could keep him in a company for very long. Louis Jouvet hesitated over hiring him in any capacity. Janet Flanner refers to his “unmodulated” voice and “non-existent” stage presence.

There is nothing finally puzzling about this uncertainty concerning his acting abilities. Artaud dwelt in and on the unsteadiness of his identity. Called upon to play another person, he could not reach beyond the part he was already playing. An actor who took Artaud’s ideas very seriously, Jean-Louis Barrault had no illusions about what was going on. “Dissatisfied with the artificial rewards of the theater, Artaud transposed his theatrical gifts into his life. He authentically lived his own role and used himself up in it. He became a walking theater [homme théâtre].” Plagued by sheer emptiness at the center of his being, increasingly unwilling to identify himself with family or society or traditional culture, Artaud had no other way to grasp his identity than to enact it. He may even have borrowed it. I am inclined to look carefully at a statement by Mme Toulouse, widow of the doctor who first lodged and cared for Artaud in Paris.

In 1924 he made a trip to Germany and came back with a passionate admiration for what he had seen in the theater and the film, for Max Reinhardt’s conceptions which pointed in the same direction as his own, and for the actor, Conrad Veidt, hero of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Student from Prague. Veidt was very tall and thin, and at the same time supple and angular. There was something unsettling in his personality that fascinated Artaud.

Jean Hort, a fellow actor, confirms Artaud’s fascination with Veidt’s role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I believe that, to a degree we shall never determine precisely, Artaud grafted onto himself the tense fantastic character Veidt projected, and made it his own. Illusion provided his reality, or at least reinforced it. When Artaud heard that Abel Gance was going to make a film of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, he sent off a near ultimatum, “I’m not offering myself for this part; I’m asking for it…. My life is that of Usher and his sinister hovel.”

Artaud turned to the theater not as vocation but as potential salvation. He seems to have known early and clearly that he would need some form of therapy all his life. The psychiatrist who came closest to curing him, Dr. Ferdière, admits readily enough that electroshock may have been a questionable treatment, and that what really brought Artaud back across the line to precarious stability was “art therapy.” Any form of writing and painting seemed to help him in Rodez. In the Twenties Artaud had chosen an art form even better suited to his needs. Listen to the psychologist J.L. Moreno defining the advantages of psychodrama as therapy for a patient. “On the stage he may find his equilibrium again, due to its methodology of freedom…. The stage is an extension of life beyond the reality test of life itself. Reality and fantasy are not in conflict.” Philip Rieff identifies the two most important institutions for “the triumph of the therapeutic” as the theater and the hospital. Artaud served most of his life in one place or the other. However I would not say that Artaud represents anything like a successful case of “therapeutic man.” He did what he could.

Artaud perpetually reconnoitered the one space he was sure of: the cleft in his thought, his absence of self. He had a very aggravated case of nausea, without any capacity to transform it into the stuff of philosophy. He was left face to face with unsteadiness, with the aching physical sense that being itself fluctuates. “A man possesses himself in flashes, and even when he possesses himself, he doesn’t fully attain himself,” he wrote to Rivière. As Proust’s editor, Rivière quickly connected this metaphor with the “intermittences of heart” that Proust describes and accepts as the human condition. But Artaud could never detach himself from or resign himself to the endless flickering of everything. The word that provides a refrain in The Theater and Its Double is “exaltation.” His early writings show little attempt to master his own suffering—physical and metaphysical; instead, he exacerbated it to the point of frenzy. Correspondingly the Theater of Cruelty aims at provoking collective delirium. Once again Breton puts his finger on the right word. “Finally I distrusted a certain paroxysm that Artaud was clearly aiming for.” But the point is that what Artaud sought was sustained paroxysm, a form of permanent intensity that would leave behind the fluctuations of consciousness.

Artaud’s short pilgrimage in 1936 to the Tarahumara region in Mexico and his participation in the peyote rite represent his furthest foray toward a steady state of exhilaration. He began writing on the spot about those divinely possessed Indians, their magic mountain full of signs, and their cruel gestural ritual. Ten years later, after Ireland and the mental asylums, he was still writing accounts of “the three happiest days of my existence.” He had found his living theater.

Boredom disappeared, I ceased looking for a reason to live, and I no longer had to carry my body. I grasped that I was inventing my life, that this was my function and my raison d’être, and that I got bored when I had no more imagination and peyote was giving it to me.

Artaud’s recollection of his best trip is pitiful in its honesty; like the rest of us, he is still engaged in mouth to mouth combat with the old Doppelgänger, ennui. In one of the Rodez letters he uses a metaphor that justifies our perceiving his aspiration as a kind of metaphysical satyriasis.

When I write or read, I want to feel my soul in an erection, as in Baudelaire’s La Charogne, La Martyre, or Le Voyage à Cythère.

Scornful of physical sex, he wished to eroticize the mind itself. There is something pornographic, not about his subjects, but about the way he uses language to provoke and excite, rarely to reflect.

In Artaud one finds none of the attitudes that could keep him firmly within the domain of the human. He lacks any sense of scale or limit to contain time short of eternity, to contain individual consciousness short of megalomania. He lacks the capacity to doubt the authority of his own immediate sensations. He lacks the third ear of humor, which can detect one’s own voice becoming obsessed or grandiloquent. Sustained exaltation, the permanent high, is not humanly possible; to seek it is to aspire to the divine. We exist in fluctuations of mind and body, and Artaud’s written texts and his whole approach to the theater as liquidation, as orgy, declares his intolerance of being simply a man. The rest is perfectly logical and consistent. In our society, wary of shamans unless they are successful gurus, we classify “divine frenzy” with insanity. Therefore, Artaud’s confinement in mental institutions confirmed his ambitions at the same time as it removed him from society.

Permanent exaltation was too much even for Artaud. The image that emerges paradoxically from his last and most violent poems is that of “a tree without organs or functions.” The revulsion from ecstasy comes with such force that it carries him to the opposite extreme. The dream of being a tree does not restore humanity; it suggests sessile continuity with inorganic nature. Artaud’s attempt to surpass intermittence as the condition of life threw him back to the frontier of non-being. He remained unaware of the fateful logic by which paroxysm recoils into quietism.


We will understand Artaud better if we consider two contrasting and important sections of his work, the writings on the theater and the declamatory poetry written during his last years. His thinking about the theater attempts with only partial success to lay down a fundamental opposition between life, the realm of signs, acts, and exaltation, and culture, the realm of forms, things, and contemplation. The vivid metaphors in The Theater and Its Double depict the means whereby the theater will goad us back to life. Cruelty, plague, and alchemy stand for a coercive missionary intent to rescue us from culture.

The essay “No More Masterpieces” will serve as a case in point. After a rousing opening that condemns all past literary works as dead, Artaud approaches the perennial problem of theater as therapy.3 At first he describes the effect of performance as a direct release of action by sympathetic magic, like snake charming. “I propose to treat spectators like snakes.” Then he reverses his field and speaks of the spectator as having experienced “a superior action…. I defy him once outside the theater to yield to ideas of war, uprising, and casual murder.” By the end of the essay the theater has become “disinterested” and “produces sublimation.”

Artaud thus tries to have it both ways, to affirm together two ancient and antithetical approaches to theatrical experience: Plato’s infection and Aristotle’s catharsis. However, having rejected literary form and psychology, he has deprived himself of any element to reconcile or mediate between the two doctrines. Furthermore Artaud is content to imply that actor and spectator have the same response, almost the same role, in a performance. As that crucial distinction dissolves, his argument becomes increasingly fuzzy in these texts on the theater. But their aggressive style helps to convey the doctrine of theatrical performance as direct intervention in people’s lives. Artaud himself grants that “There is a risk.”

The last poems pose even more problems than the theater texts. In 1946, just out of confinement in Rodez and approached by Gallimard publishers about editing his complete works, Artaud wrote a preamble for the edition. He begins by rejecting his early poems in regular verse as “farces.”4 Then, in a rumbling stylistic shift from prose to free verse, he turns to his later work. “For me the question was to find out what could insinuate itself not into the set pieces of language, / but into the weave of my living soul.” The whole palpitating text proclaims poetry not as something written in words but as the flesh and blood of his life. Yet the preamble also displays his enormous dependence on rhyme (in the above quotation: écrit / âme en vie) and on verbal sound effects to generate and propel his thought. Compared to the self-pity and wavering diction in the early poems, the free verse/prose compositions of the 1940s resound with pronouncements of a stentorian ego seeking untrammeled self-performance. One begins to hear echoes of Victor Hugo. These declamatory texts rely increasingly on two elements: a scatological vision of the universe, and invented words apparently used for sonorous effect as if they were physical entities, not mental signs.

passakenouti loki esti
loki esti tenudi

koni kropt ta kerni poula
kerni poula ternupti

ton ana diroula
ton ana douri

Most critics interpret such texts by discovering in them the dregs and drippings of everyday French. But in the letters from Rodez Artaud speaks several times with conviction of writing “in a language which is not French, but which everyone could read, whatever his nationality.” If that is the case, how are we to hear, or pronounce, these universal symbols? Is this a new phonetic alphabet? Artaud never steps over the line for very long into sustained ecumenical discourse; he comes back after a dozen lines of goulash to the safety of standard French.

Now Artaud undoubtedly knew about the Futurists’ “liberated words,” about the Dadaists’ experiments with phonic poetry, and possibly about Khlebnikov’s claims, dating from 1913, for Zaum as a universal language. Furthermore Dr. Allendy, whose influence on Artaud during early Paris years was extensive, had a special interest as a psychiatrist in religious glossolalia. Nothing suggests that Artaud took these sound formations lightly or in any way faked them. In fact they are as far from being gratuitous as the scatological motifs that accompany them. Both elements belong to a single bond, grounded in the magic nature of Artaud’s imagination. In these final poems it is as if an auditory spell had been cast on him, often invoking the Egyptian spirit principle ka or kah. In a letter to Henri Parisot he describes a vision of excrement flowing from coffins.

The name of that material is caca, and caca is the material of the soul…. The breath of bones has a center and that center is the abyss of Kah-Kah, Kah the bodily breath of shit, which is the opium of eternal survival.

For two pages Artaud fixes on the sound kaka. For him language does not remain an arbitrary, socially established set of signals; it unmasks universal correspondences that link everything to everything. A powerful and darkly equivocal sound like ka can capture the universe in its coils. Artaud’s oracular fragments in these last poems seem to be saying that if we suddenly heard the superabundance of interlocking meanings in language, we could not bear it. That was his cancer of the spirit.

We now face several complications. Having rejected the literary text as the basis of theatrical performance, Artaud went on to try out the possibilities of magical, non-linguistic, incantatory sounds in poetry. I think we can keep track of his movements only if we have in mind some rough definition of the nature of verbal expression. Let me reduce the jungle of theory to two basic approaches.

The first says expression kills. Genuine feelings and thoughts lie below the level of verbal discourse. When brought to the surface by the gross processes of language, they shrivel and die. Expression betrays the integrity of thought in its natural habitat. “Language,” writes Nietzsche, “remains incapable of objectifying the great human myths.”

The second approach says expression creates. Until we try to express them, we hardly know what feelings and thoughts we have. Words are not frozen scraps of experience but still malleable tokens for it. A writer both uses words to guide his thought and reshapes words as his thought outstrips their ordinary meanings. “I noted down the inexpressible,” brags Rimbaud, half ironic, half incredulous. Laforgue composed a terse manifesto for this basic attitude: “It cannot be too strongly stated that a poem is not the expression of a feeling the poet had before he began to write.”5

Of these two positions, the second is the more truly poetic. Pity the poet who fears or distrusts language, for he has lost his true love. Mock the poet who whines about the inadequacy of language to convey his subtle states of mind. It is his own fault; he has not mastered his art. Artaud was as confused about language and expression as he was about the effects of theatrical performance. Over and over again he preached the first theory and deplored the bankruptcy of verbal and literary expression. The tone becomes increasingly shrill.

The words we use were passed on to me and I use them but not to make myself understood, not to say everything once and for all

why then?

but I don’t use them

all I do is shut up and hit things

anyway if I talk it’s a kind of fucking [ça baise], the universal fornication of words makes us forget that there’s no thinking going on

But Artaud never stopped writing. He kept beating on the wall of words. He was not just a writer in spite of himself; he mastered an explosive polemical style that often moves out ahead of his thought. The hypnosis of words led him on and on, until in the last texts it is the very sound of declaimed speech that provides the continuity from sentence to sentence. Thus, while preaching the first theory of expression he was practicing the second with a kind of terribilità that is now his mark. To read his French critics, particularly Derrida, you would take Artaud for a basically anal writer, hoarding all thought formations. In reality, he had a serious case of logorrhea. At no time did Artaud approach the problem of language and expression with the uncluttered insight of Emily Dickinson.

A word is dead
When it is said Some say;
I say it just
Begins to live That day.


What shall we do, then, with this whirling dervish of self-performance, with this poet anathematizing poetry and proclaiming contradictions at the top of his voice? We cannot dismiss him as merely mad. He had too much talent and perverse intelligence. Must we grant him tenure in the culture for the fierceness of his jeremiads and the intensity of his suffering?

Addressing herself to these questions in the introduction to her collection of Artaud’s writings, Susan Sontag has written a fine exposition of Artaud’s thought. Her long essay has greater reach than the three other books on him in English, and she remains more clear-sighted than most of the French critics who have now taken him up.6 Her evaluation of Artaud’s important encounter with Surrealism is balanced and illuminating, and she perceives the essentially gnostic nature of his thought. It is Sontag’s examination of Artaud’s dream of uniting mind and body (“the mind as carnal”) that carries her the greatest distance into his universe. Her discussion of his “aesthetics of shock” stops short of pointing out that he was advocating in the theater a form of collective shock treatment that he railed against when it was administered to him individually in a clinic. According to Sontag, he bequeathed to us “a singular presence, a theology of culture, a phenomenology of suffering,” even though he was a failure as a writer. (Somewhat confusingly, she also tells us that Artaud was “the greatest prose poet in the French language since Rimbaud.”) His failure as a writer was due to his alienation from language and to the agony he experienced in writing.

I must disagree with both reasons. Artaud reveled in language: the evidence indicates that he found writing one of his few available links with reality and with the joy of accomplishment. Furthermore, Artaud was deluding himself and his readers when he claimed that the only form he could write in was the personal letter. His chosen format was the public lecture, a one-man theater, solo performance for an audience—even in writing to one person. When he acknowledged as much in a letter to Paulhan, he also revealed a deep distrust of his own vocation. The lecture format, he wrote, “permits me direct expression without the interposition of actors who might betray me.” Thus he commandeered and suppressed true theater. Artaud was not an intimate letter writer but an incorrigible public preacher, more histrionic finally than gnostic.

Sontag’s opening discussion of the modern artist at odds with his culture, and her final somewhat tormented verdict on Artaud as “indigestible” and “unassimilable,” impel me to make a few final remarks. At the beginning of the nineteenth century a fairly successful attempt was made to divide medicine into allopathic (cure by producing the symptoms of health) and homeopathic (cure or prevention by producing mild symptoms of the disease in question). The distinction is helpful in describing the contrasting ways in which a culture treats its own various strains and disorders. Sade, Hölderlin, Nerval, Nietzsche, and Artaud were all certified by the culture as criminal or pathological, yet their lives and their work have not been cast out of the Republic of Letters. Quite the contrary, we carefully preserve their biographical and literary remains in the usually unstated belief that their strain may yield a valuable innoculation against dangerous ideas, including some of their own. This homeopathic faith justifying liberalism of mind and opposing Plato’s banishment of poets probably represents the most exciting risk Western culture has taken.

But how can we tell if we are preserving a strain too virulent to serve as vaccination? Before we certify Artaud either as the map maker of a liberated society or as the best vaccine against cultural anarchy, we had better examine the serum very closely for potency, side effects, and delayed reactions. There is a recurring theme in Artaud’s thinking that we would do well to single out.

The theater must bring itself up to the level of life, not individual life or its individual aspect in which CHARACTERS dominate, but a kind of liberated life which gets rid of human individuality and in which man becomes a mere reflection. The true object of the theater is to create Myths…. [The Theater and Its Double]

Destruction of individual consciousness [conscience] however represents a lofty idea of culture, it is a deep idea of culture from which will come a completely new form of civilization. [First Contact with the Mexican Revolution]

Bombs need to be thrown, but they need to be thrown at the root of the majority of present-day habits of thought, whether European or not. [Manifesto for a Theater That Failed]

Like men, epochs have an unconscious…. Now nothing reached by reason or intelligence is spiritual…. What was the spiritual value of the artists shot by the Russian Revolution? Today more than ever artists are responsible for the disorder of the period, and the Russian Revolution would not have shot them if they had had a real sense of their period…. André Chénier, wandering across useless and reactionary terrain, was easily spared without loss to poetry or the period….7 Art must seize hold of individual occupations and raise them to the level of an emotion capable of dominating the era…. All eras are not capable of appreciating the artist and the protective function he exercises for the benefit of the collectivity. [The Social Anarchy of Art]

I suddenly realized that the time was past for bringing people together in a theater, even to say true things to them, and that there is no longer any language that society and its audiences will understand except bombs, machine-guns, barricades, and everything that follows. [Letter to André Breton after the Vieux-Colombier reading]

How much commentary is needed? Artaud was prepared to renounce the social transactions of language, to renounce reason itself. He did not fear violence, bombs if necessary, against poets who did not submit to their true mission. All this in the name of “myth,” “being,” “collectivity.” Let us be very careful about this extreme case. When he was protesting the Surrealists’ blind march toward communism in 1927, Artaud could take a very different stand. “But what does all the Revolution in the world mean to me if I know I remain eternally afflicted and miserable in the midst of my own charnel house.” But over the long haul and in his most crucial texts, Artaud is prepared to surrender individual consciousness and even individual life to a higher collectivity. Some might call it a prophetic mind. I call it a totalitarian mind—or at least one deeply pulled in that direction. The second quotation above continues as follows:

Not to feel oneself living as an individual amounts to escape from the fearful capitalism that I call capitalism of consciousness, for l’âme [soul or mind] belongs to everyone in common.

Artaud was making the bomb and said he wanted to drop it on culture. But half-metaphorical bombs can end up killing real people.

Once Artaud caught himself just right. “I’m not mad,” he wrote to Jacqueline Breton, “I’m a fanatic.” We should by now have learned what it means to canonize fanatics. The strain is too potent to yield safe vaccine. Even Aragon, whose political history is contemptible, saw things clearly at the outset of Artaud’s career. In 1925 Aragon spoke to an audience at the University of Madrid about the recent launching of the Surrealist movement.

I announce the coming of a dictator. Antonin Artaud is the man who has taken the plunge. Today he is assuming the immense task of leading forty willing men toward an unknown abyss.

Artaud was not the leader for long, but he has now assumed the fascination of an almost official pariah. Having “taught” his works to college classes, I believe firmly (just short of fanatically) that we must ascertain the ingredients of the books we read, be they allopathic or homeopathic, evangelical or indigestible. Artaud contains a significant quantity of nostalgia for violence along with a tendency to capitulate to undefined collective forces that speak in an unknown tongue. Very strong medicine.

This Issue

November 11, 1976