Thursday, June 12, 2008
I initially picked up the City Lights Artaud Anthology almost a year ago. I had just moved to Yonkers, and since it was August, I still had a couple weeks before school started. With all that free time on my hands, I was able to make my way through a good number of books. The Artaud Anthology had been sitting on my shelf for almost a year at that point, so I figured I could now finally get around to it. I only got about halfway through the City Lights anthology, up to Artaud's extended essay, "Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society," before putting it down. I did so partially because my schedule became so busy once school started, but it mostly because I could quite make any headway in regards to Artaud's writing. A second, more recent reading of the Artaud Anthology left me with a remarkably stronger impression.
The book is divided into two parts, the first section covering Artaud's writings over the years of 1924-1937, while the second draws from the remarkable period of his final years following his release from the Rodez asylum, from 1943-1948. The first section is often impressive. I was thrilled while reading "Here Where Others…"to be reminded of Frank O'Hara, as Artaud states that "I can't conceive of a work detached from life." Still, many of the early works are also inconsistent, and yes, as Jacques Riviere says in correspondence to a young Artaud, "…there are awkward things and disconcerting oddities in your poems." It's true that this fragmentation is in fact one of the chief devices of Artaud, but these early searchings only crystallize after a reading of the later texts. The Occidental mysticism of "The New Revelations of Being" and the sympathetic appraisal of Eastern spiritualism in "Address to the Dalai Lama" are surprisingly optimistic and tolerant for a man who later wrote that "I hate and renounce as a coward every being who cannot think that the search for his life as a being is a study superior to that of giving himself over to…notions uncontrollably lent by other personalities." The younger Artaud seems ready to adopt the divergent philosophies he encounters in the course of his searchings, while the older Artaud is much more dismissive. As an older man, Artaud had been besieged by his life-long battle with drug addiction, as well as a struggle with wave after wave of psychoanalysts, who subjected Artaud to an obscene number of electroshock treatments. Caustic and vitriolic, the late Artaud is by no means a nihilistic dead-end.
Artaud occupies an intriguing position posed somewhere between a philosopher and a poet. He utilizes familiar words through a personal stricture more akin to a thinker like Kant or Schopenhauer – words such as "mind," "body," "soul," and "flesh" all have connotations peculiar to Artaud apart from their familiar definitions. These personal definitions shift and accumulate meanings, resisting fixity. A central characteristic of Artaud's writing is this very fragmentation, he does not bother to solidly define his terms, but instead layers meanings and phrases atop each other. "Fragments of a Journal in Hell" does not follow an arc of building tension, but instead offers short fragments functioning in an aphoristic manner similar to Nietzsche or Wittgenstein. He approaches the grist of an idea, though he adamantly states that "ideas are the void of the body."
Representation is not a concern of Artaud. When writing about his own series of portraits, he states that "it's absurd/ to reproach a painter/ for academically/ insisting in his time upon/ still reproducing/ the features of the human face/ such as they are; for such/ as they are, they haven't/ yet found the form they/ point to and specify…" Since the representation of an actuality is impossible, he focuses instead on the layering of possibilities through repetition. By the latter section of the book, the repetition of key phrases and words generate a unity cotangent to each piece's own disunity.
The second half of the anthology ties together the disparate sketches of the first half. The latter pieces, such as "Shit to the Spirit" and "Here Lies" manage to be more scatological and expressive than the earlier pieces, while also possessing greater philosophical acumen. "Here Where I Stand" evokes Villon its brazen declarations of self, "Myself Antonin Artaud/ I am pure spirit/ and I make my body/ rise …" Elsewhere, impossible images such as "the skeleton of the human cock…" appear, but this incongruity suffuses the text with precisely the violent disambiguation Artaud so effectively writes about.
My initial difficulty with the text may have been its intentionally fragmentary nature –this very fragmentation resists a close reading while also demanding one. It is to Artaud's ultimate credit that his work refutes, in many ways, the critical establishment of literary analysis.
Though they are markedly different thinkers, as a sense of disunity pervades Artaud's writing in a manner unity does Emerson's, I found a few essential points of agreement between the two great writers. While discussing Van Gogh, Artaud draws the reader's attention to "a candlestick on a chair, on a green straw-bottomed armchair,/ a book on the armchair,/ and there the drama is revealed…" and a short time later, "…reality is terribly superior to all history, to all fable, to all divinity, to all surreality." Artaud stresses the everyday experience as tantamount. This, and his humanist struck me, particularly since they aren't spoken of as frequently as his scatology and extremist. I find within Artaud an uncompromising utopianism opposed to the exclusive and reductive lies frequently associated with such social and personal liberty.