When I was in graduate school, I saw a posting on the bulletin board in my department indicating that poets were 50percent more likely than those in other professions to experience mental illness. In the moment, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why it was necessary to post these survey results, where any number of poets were liable to see them. Instead, I thought they bore some important news: that poets were the genuine article. Because: nothing was more genuine than mental illness.
Where’s the beginning and the ending of the theater, the building which houses this evening’s drama? This is one of the first questions I ask when I’m reading Antonin Artaud. Artaud no longer seems to think of the theater as inhabiting a particular space, just as there is no longer a space in the world uncontaminated by his theater. His is a theater as big as the world. No part of our lives is untouched by the need for its spectacle.
In senior year of college, I appeared in a production of The Cenci, by Artaud. True, this particular drama is unproducible, generally speaking, and not terribly “good,” according to the standards of conventional theater. Probably The Cenci is an example of the failure of Artaud to find a way to apply his ideas. This didn’t stop us, the players of my undergraduate years. In the course of the action I was meant to simulate copulation with an actress who just then happened to be both my apartment mate and the lover of one of my best friends. I threw myself into it, the simulation. I believed in the cruelty part of “Theater of Cruelty.” I simulated so violently, one night, that I banged my hand on the set, on the mise-en-scène, as it were, and gashed myself. It took a long while for the wound to heal. When it did, I was launched on the world. I was a graduate.
In those days: Genet and Derrida and Barthes and Foucault and Deleuze, as well as Artaud. Thus, the specific Artaud influence was a general French influence, and the general thrust of that French influence, as I understood it, included trusting in imagination as an anarchic force, the unstoppable force, a force in the midst of forestalling the attempts of society and metaphysics to control and organize. “Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems” (Foucault’s preface to L’Anti-Oedipe). I therefore loved the surrealist manifestos, too.2 I got bored only with the surrealists when the principals became too enamored with politics. Artaud got bored early, too. He turned on them with a vengeance. The spurned lover.
My hypothesis: Artaud is part of a European and specifically French intellectual lineage obsessed with the rigors of truth-telling. (“We are born, we live,” he said, speaking to a tradition of paradoxical truths, “we die in an environment of lies.”) Artaud aspires to be a magus of truth, a sorcerer of truth, and he is willing to die for it, or to be driven insane by his perceptions: “I believe that our present social state is iniquitous and should be destroyed. If this is a fact for the theater to be preoccupied with, it is even more a matter for machine guns.” Does he believe what he’s saying exactly as he’s saying it, or does he simply believe that the truth is in the avowal, which avowal changes its utterer, makes it nearly impossible for him to bring the message back to the place where it most needs to be brought—the place of mendacity?
“Should I be writing like Artaud? I am incapable of it,” Derrida says, “and besides, anyone who would try to write like him, under the pretext of writing toward him, would be even surer of missing him, would lose the slightest chance ever of meeting him in the ridiculous attempt of this mimetic distortion.”
Sontag argues that he’s a gnostic (“Artaud wandered in the labyrinth of a specific type of religious sensibility, the Gnostic one”), meaning, I suppose, that he believed in a secret, unimpeded route to the divine, that he could have personal access, without requiring the apparatus of the church and its intercessions. Or: gnostic meaning that the divine with which he consorts is a malignancy? A failed demiurge? I’m not always sure which gnosticism Sontag refers to.3 And yet you do feel Artaud’s fealty to the concealed, especially in, e.g., To Have Done with the Judgment of God, his radio play. Likewise the late work generally, Artaud le Momo, and Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society, etc. Perhaps the secret he pursues is between things and between the words that describe these things. His secret is unpronounceable and cannot be passed on, but certain gestures indicate the direction in which we might proceed. Thus his love of hieroglyphics, words that are illustrative, not alphabetical, “And these three-dimensional hieroglyphs are in turn brocaded with a certain number of gestures—mysterious signs which correspond to some unknown, fabulous, and obscure reality which we here in the Occident have completely repressed.”
I was studying a lot of drama, and I therefore remember, reading from the Theater of the Absurd. Pirandello and some Ionesco and some Arrabal and some Beckett. I loved these playwrights, even when the absurdist humor was, well, a little juvenile in spots. Scatological, but perhaps with an emphasis on the logical. I liked the Arrabal play set in an automobile graveyard. I liked the Ionesco play featuring rhinoceroses. And yet this anarchy was too gentle. The Theater of the Absurd had been tamed by then, and that was obvious, especially so when I came to read The Theater and Its Double, the overture of which ends with a miraculous, life-altering terminus, a terminus which was enough to discredit, in some measure, much of what I loved about the Theater of the Absurd: “And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” The Theater of Cruelty, you see, was never tamed.
What’s with the before and after photos of Artaud? Always before illness and then after? You’d think he was a dieter. Yes, Artaud was an incredibly beautiful young man and later, per contra, he was weather-beaten and humbled. Wracked by cancer and decades of addiction, not to mention ECT and other exotic psychiatric treatments. Insulin therapy. Yet perhaps the beaten-down quality is still an interpretation of Artaud. The photos are a luxury for those who already know what they think. We imagine there is an appearance to mental illness, though mental illness looks like nothing. Suffering looks like something. But generally mental illness is simply the physical illness that bears no trace.
Derrida: “It would certainly be disingenuous to close our eyes, either because of some literary feeling or some absentminded politeness, to what Artaud himself describes as a neuropathological persecution. Moreover, that kind of disingenuousness would be insulting. The man is sick.”
When I was acting in college, there was a certain kind of play, a certain kind of theater, that flattened life and reduced its complexity and menace and variety, leaving a mere residue of pabulum. I refer to the issue-oriented parlor drama. The protagonists in these plays sit around yacking about abortion or euthanasia or about church and state, and someone gives a monologue and then commences to weep. Artaud’s contempt is instructive: “All true feeling is in reality untranslatable. To express it is to betray it. But to translate it is to dissimulate it. True expression hides what it makes manifest.”
What would theater be like if there could be a genuine Theater of Cruelty along the lines proposed? I admire, e.g., the Living Theater, at least as I understand them to have been, from videos and written accounts. They argue for something like an applied Theater of Cruelty. Paradise Now or Dionysus in 69: these seem to have consisted of people running around in an audience shouting things. Breaking the Fourth Wall. Are the words being shouted about Vietnam? The savagery of American capitalism? The iniquities and inequities of human things? They are. Perhaps this revolution feels quaint now. Why, then, am I so fascinated, so moved, by the idea of any such performance? By the Living Theater and the work of Jerzy Grotowski, et al.? Because it’s spontaneous, because it is happening now, because it puts the life back in live theater.
Psychosis is timeless, psychosis is exclusionary, psychosis is isolated, psychosis is excruciating. Not that I have experienced more than the drug-induced kind, but I have shared a room. Psychosis involves torment. It’s hard for the layperson to construct what this variety of torment feels like.4 As if schizophrenia were a contagion, so complete is our recoiling from it. Artaud reiterates this quality of his predicament so regularly, his torment,5 that we become inured to the protestations, and in this way perhaps he is forced into metaphor: “You have seen the hordes of demons which afflict me night and day, you have seen them as clearly as you see me. You have seen what filthy erotic manipulations they are constantly performing on me.” In metaphor, the flourishing of the etiology of torment, as if translated for us.
Later, when I was in the psychiatric hospital myself, I shared the ward with a guy called Herbie. Really nice guy. He might have been my buddy back in high school. He had an impish sense of humor, and a poorly grown-in mustache, but he had taken too much acid, which had gotten to him, and now he was more or less schizophrenic—depending on the day and on his levels of medication. When Herbie was not floridly psychotic, he was very badly depressed. He had a good sense of what he’d done to himself, what synapses he had cooked. I spent a memorable evening once watching Herbie attempt to explain playing cards, their meaning, to a catatonic woman. For Herbie, the words of the explanation existed mainly as sounds, not words, but as assonances and euphonies. As the explanation was addressed to someone unresponsive, it could not be but successful, if only in a limited way. Herbie therefore gave himself over to it with great energy. He performed it.
How to think of the double in The Theater and Its Double? Doubling as a figment of a hermeneutically obsessed imagination? The double as the thing behind the thing? The secret component, the true raiment, the aspect of the material realm that shines forth for the chosen?
My own particular emotional difficulty was hermeneutic, in the sense that I thought beneath all men, beneath all masculinity, was savagery that I couldn’t see; all men were rapists, in my own madness (if madness is the right word), and they were temporarily concealing this rapacity; I would see it in them, on the bus, on the subway, each man concealing his bloodthirsty secret. Like many people who are high-functioning but ill, I tried not to discuss these thoughts, these things that I was thinking, which made me feel more isolated, in turn more hermeneutical, more preoccupied with the interiority of my inquiries, the illness thus somehow causing the illness, the lack of a cure preventing the possibility of a cure.
Artaud lost his mind in Ireland, if by mind we refer to the part of him that could construct experience nonmetaphorically. First there was the trip to Mexico, which must have been a huge undertaking,6 to pull up stakes from home in Europe for this disorderly New World. There was a lot of intoxication in Mexico, and much sorcery, because this was Mexico, a land of myth, where teenagers are sacrificed, and men are turned into coyotes, and black magic is the spectacle. William S. Burroughs looked for and found similar things there. Artaud wasn’t in Mexico long, just a few months, in part because it was not populated by theatrical adepts, but, in the countryside, by indigenous people trying to scrape by.
Not long after Mexico, his trip to Ireland. 1937. A country and a mythological apparatus to which I have made pilgrimages myself. Artaud didn’t speak English very well, it is said, and while he was there, he had a hard time making himself understood. Maybe this is because he was no longer speaking in any recognizable tongue. What is it about Ireland? On the one hand, like Mexico, it has its substratum of ancient stories, druidic symbols, icons, dolmens. And then again it is layered over in the habits of Christianity, with which Artaud much struggled—the old, vengeful Abrahamic god.
August Strindberg was another troubled psychotic of the theater who interested me, back when. I performed in Ghost Sonata in high school, and later in A Dream Play. In college. These were tortured, haunted, deeply unsettling plays. Artaud mounted productions of each. When I was preparing for A Dream Play, I went and read translations of nearly all of Strindberg’s journals and novels. He really did believe that there were gears in the walls of his flat (it’s a very popular hallucination) and that neighbors were trying to drive him crazy with infernal engines.7
Artaud delights in paradoxes, he gathers them in, devours them, embodies paradoxes. Thus the assault on the language of the theater and the preference of the theater for text over mise-en-scène is written in the most elevated and perfectly calibrated prose: “What is essential now, it seems to me, is to determine what this physical language consists of, this solidified, materialized language by means of which theater is able to differentiate itself from speech.” What’s so horrible about text, you may want to ask, if it permits this gloriousness we have before us, the Oeuvres of Artaud?
In glossolalia, favored by the later Artaud, words become vessels of sound, and the repetition is what’s pleasing. The meaning becomes the materiality, and the gesture of the words in their improvised modality brings us close to the original spirit of language. It’s like the Latin mass overheard by a nonspeaker of Latin:
tara dada i i
Artaud advocates glossolalia well before he employs it. He advocates it in his assault on the textuality of European playwriting, and then later, in his illness, he free-falls into non-textuality, which means: as if at the prompting of God.
There’s a way that I always disbelieve Artaud, too, especially now that I am twenty years from my own time in the psychiatric hospital. In my disbelief, sometimes he seems just a sick person, and I want to say that I am no longer willing to be sick for my own art—it’s a young man’s game—and I think the fact that Artaud exists mostly in fragments, the fact that his plays are often unfinished, unmounted, or critical failures, doesn’t look so good in the harsh light of retrospection. Conquest of Mexico, e.g., it might work in film, if you hired some team of digital technicians to design the backdrops and had all the actors acting in front of blue screens, but no one would underwrite such a film, and anyway film is not theater, has no legitimate spectacle about it, film isn’t live.
In 1984, I saw a performance piece by Sylvère Lotringer—at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City—about Artaud. In the course of the evening, Sylvère played a recording of To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Artaud’s radio play and last major work. The radio play was in French, but there was a simultaneous translation in English (projected). Finally, I heard Artaud’s voice, a deeply scary thing. To me the radio play sounded punk, like Throbbing Gristle, or like Test Department, or like Einstürzende Neubauten. This sound of torment is simulated in punk and post-punk, but in Artaud’s voice, it was anything but:
I learned yesterday / one of the most sensational of those official practices of American public schools / which no doubt account for the fact that this country believes itself to be in the vanguard of progress. / It seems that, among the examinations of tests required of a child entering public school for the first time, there is the so-called seminal fluid or sperm test, / which consists of asking this newly entering child for a small amount of his sperm so it can be placed in a jar and kept ready.…
When he’s really onto his subject, he inevitably summons the biological horrors. What he’s written is written on the body: “The idea of a detached art, of poetry as a charm which exists only to distract our leisure, is a decadent idea and an unmistakable symptom of our power to castrate.”
The stench of fiction is a perfume formulated by my friend Bradford Morrow to describe some artifices of the literary now. The shallowness of literary business as usual, the complicity, the smugness, the self-satisfaction, the predictability, the consonance with an existing power structure, the reverence for sentimentality, the melodrama, the bad prose, the total poverty of imagination and innovation, the lack of surprise, the insularity, the flaccidity, the tediousness, the frequent disappointment of literature. Sontag, in her introduction to Artaud, describes the hatred of literature as part of the process for the surrealists, and thus part of the process for a young Artaud. And yet in America, it seems to me, there is much left to be done. Our fiction has a more fecal perfume, and when Morrow describes breathing deep of the stench, therefore, being able to perceive in it its giardia and streptococcus B, even from a distance, he is also describing what I love about Artaud, the desire to lay siege, and then to delight in the aftermath.
“The Theater and the Plague,” from The Theater and Its Double, is among the most astonishing modern essays on literary aesthetics, and it shook my very foundations. Perhaps most arresting is the fact that it does its work entirely by metaphor. “Before the onset of any marked physical or psychological discomfort, the body is covered in red spots,” the author begins, before detailing at great length the horrors of the affliction, “and these blisters are surrounded by circles, of which the outermost, like Saturn’s ring around the incandescent planet, indicates the extreme limit of a bubo.” It’s only well into the essay that Artaud finally connects the plague to his subject, the theater. (“There are other analogies which confirm the only truths that count and locate the action of the theater like that of the plague on the level of a veritable epidemic.”) A simile, wrapped inside a metaphor, inside a metaphor, like a bubo with its rings—literature ought to be like theater, as theater is itself like a plague, as all of life is like theater, is theater.
Recently, I had lunch with a schizophrenic guy, an old college friend. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was a pleasure. Among other topics, we spoke of the Internet, this friend and I, about social-networking sites in particular. I was expecting him to be suspicious of these sites because it was through them, through connectivity, that the Forces of Evil could locate him and torture him, as he insisted the Forces of Evil already had. What he instead said about Facebook was: “Those people will know that I don’t work.” The social part of life had become what was insurmountable to him. He had fallen away from the world.
Artaud on literature:
Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed.
Books, texts, magazines are tombstones.
Dear friend, I detest literature more than you do.
The duty of the writer, of the poet is not to shut himself up like a coward in a text, a book, a magazine from which he never comes out.
One mustn’t let in too much literature.
All writing is garbage. People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.
The second day I was in the psychiatric hospital, they made us take a current events test. There was a girl in there with me, a girl with horrible anorexia and all kinds of scars on her wrists. She was unable to read through a single headline in the newspaper. That was the substance of the test. Read a newspaper article aloud and describe what was in it. She couldn’t even get through a single headline. Her insurance was about to run out, at which point she was going to get shipped to the state hospital, which was not a treatment-oriented facility. By contrast, I was well enough informed on politics and current events. I could easily read from the newspaper. And yet part of my sickness was located in the fact that I found the anorexic girl, so bent on her own demise, glorious, tragic, and luminous.
Artaud went to great lengths to defend the word cruelty. Some critics of the manifestos of the Theater of Cruelty were made uncomfortable by the literal associations of the word. Still, there’s a danger, I think, in not taking the word cruelty literally. Artaud intends the force of what he has written—though he seems not to be the sort of person who would have been physically cruel to anyone. “Cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination,” he observes, but the sentence, forced on him by those who would have clarification, doesn’t have the neon savagery of his finer moments: “Death is cruelty, resurrection is cruelty, transfiguration is cruelty, since nowhere in a circular and closed world is there room for true death, since ascension is a rending, since closed space is fed with lives, and each stronger life tramples down the others, consuming them in a massacre which is a transfiguration and a bliss.”
Recognizing that paranoid schizophrenic is a term that psychiatrists pencil onto charts or insurance forms, I suppose I would still have to use the term or something like it to describe my college friend Joe, at least if I was bent on oversimplifying. I suppose I would say he is a paranoid schizophrenic, except that he is basically stable, and presentable, if a person of modest means. On the day we had lunch, I first met him on the street corner, he made small talk in the usual way, and then, with a slightly worried grin, he asked, “Rick, what are you doing here? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?” I said that I was just there to have lunch with him. To which Joe said, “Well, then you must be a double, too.” When I argued that I wasn’t a double, he said, “Then why are you here?”
In or about 1956, Gregory Bateson conceived of the “double bind” theory to describe aspects of difficulties experienced by schizophrenics8: according to Bateson, the schizophrenic experiences his symptoms as a result of this causative straitjacketing, a nexus of contradictory social or emotional messages, to which psychosis is a logical response. Bateson suggests that the schizophrenic has “trouble in identifying and interpreting those signals which should tell the individual what sort of message a message is, i.e., trouble with the signals of the same logical type as the signal ‘This is play.’”9 The psychotic break, in this argument, is the result of the strata of difficulties experienced by the patient—in the family, in the home, in the world.
But maybe doubling is also built into language, into the exchange of utterances, as in the remark by Bateson, “Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction. Double description is better than one.” And doubling is also implicit in the gnostic idea (in Hypostasis of the Archons, e.g.), wherein this world is an inferior copy of the more perfect heavenly one. And doubling is likewise central to world literature, and thus its prevalence in Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Saramago, Hogg, et al. But as the copies are copied, the image becomes muddier, becomes barren.
After Ireland, the cast of Artaud’s prose turned dark once and for all (“I no longer know what is normal or supranormal”). This was also the moment in which he was correcting the proofs of his masterwork The Theater and Its Double. As Sontag sketches in her time line, “By the time The Theater and Its Double appeared, Artaud was interned in the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris.”
Was it his childhood case of meningitis? Was it getting stabbed, when he was nineteen? Were those trauma enough? Was it the inadvertent opiate detoxification, on the trip to Mexico? Artaud speaks glancingly to this last issue, detoxification, in the sections I have read of “A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara,” concerning his travels. And in my own case, if I may speak to it again briefly, the detox was unpleasant, and the stress made me liable to have even more unintelligible thoughts than I’d had before. Drink made depression far worse. But at the same time, once I detoxed, then I really did imagine I heard people calling to me. I thought I was seeing things on the television that weren’t really there, like transsexual prostitutes. Lots of them.
Artaud says of the ingestion of peyote (into his newly detoxified system), on the trip into the Mexican interior: “For now that he was dead his double could not wait for these evil spirits to be neutralized.…” And, later: “Peyote, as I knew, was not made for Whites.… And a White, for these Red men, is one whom the spirits have abandoned.”
The ’30s were eventful. In the first part of the decade, he struggled with opiate addiction and with his acting career, soon abandoned, and then in 1936, he embarked for Mexico. To see his ideas bear fruit! Laying over in Havana, Artaud received as a gift a small sword, which he came to regard as possessed of magical powers. He detoxified again, in Mexico, having been unable to secure supply. In due course he relapsed. Back in France, he tried twice again to detoxify, without success. Then, in 1937, he made the trip to Ireland. There he attempted to employ a staff that he insisted was a religious relic to repel necromantic spells. This did not endear him to the locals (“Now the true christ is he who has given me his own staff, his magnetic magic wand, and he has no connection, I beg you to believe, with the christ of Christianity, or the christ of Catholicism”). In Dublin, he was jailed briefly, and then deported. Upon landing, he failed to recognize his own mother.
No theater extant, no theater in history, exists, “which would fulfill Artaud’s desire,” Derrida suggests, “and there would be no exception to be made for the attempts made by Artaud himself.” This is part of why I admired him, especially when young—because his desire was such as to exceed possible fulfillment. But this is why it’s also easy to misread him, as perhaps the Living Theater did, in thinking that mere provocation will do justice to the ideas. Probably what Artaud exhibits, in the end, is a purely literary construct, and that’s why his sentences are so dazzling, even when he is at his most ill. The sentences are the engine of his desire, but things collapse in his unsturdy vision: living and being, body and soul, self and other.
So: I feel what his language means in my extremities, even if I don’t always know what he means in my mind, and that feeling is the precondition of being swept away, as in:
This century no longer understands fecal poetry, the intestine malady of herself, Madam Death, who since the age of ages has been sounding the depths of her dead woman’s column, her dead woman’s anal column, in the excrement of an abolished survival, the corpse too of her abolished selves, and who for the crime of not having been able to exist, for never having been able to be a creature, had to fall, the better to sound the depths of her own being into this abyss of foul matter and indeed so pleasantly foul in which the corpse of Madam Death, Madam Fecal Uterine, Madam Anus, hell upon hell of excrement, in the opium of her excrement, foments hunger, the fecal destiny of her soul, in the uterus of her own center.
How indelible his assault, his obliteration of père-mère, his refusal of origin, which leads, by synecdoche, or by syntax, to his body without organs—because if you have no origin, it stands to reason that you have no organs, no materiality, and thus you do not have to produce, and what Derrida says here, refusing biographical resonances while alluding to them, seems unavoidable: “If it is precisely at this point that we recall that Artaud died of cancer of the rectum, we do not do so in order to have exception prove the rule, but because we think that the status (still to be found) of this remark, and of other similar ones, must not be that of the so-called ‘biographical reference.’”
If Foucault, meanwhile, is correct in defining madness as “the absence of work,” then Artaud was not mad, as he said himself on occasion (“I want them to understand that I have never been either mad or sick”). He leaves so much behind that constitutes work. Pages and pages of it. Wrestling with his works could fill a life. I, on the other hand, was mad, technically speaking, in the period just after being institutionalized, just after colliding with the institution, because in and after, I had trouble writing, couldn’t write, and thus I constituted an absence of work, an inability to reflect, a shortage of will.
I thought madness was a prerequisite for poetry, once upon a time. But if you believe Artaud, the prerequisite for poetry is having a body, living in it, fighting against its limitations, rejecting it. Many are his legacies in me—an attraction to a certain kind of metaphor, a love of physiognomy as a locator for consciousness, and an understanding of the dramatic platform and its possibilities. But most foundationally there is the sheer music of language, at the moment it addresses the outrages.
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