Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blows and Bombs by Stephen Barber


Antonin Artaud – The Biography

I didn't care for Stephen Barber's overview of the Vienna Aktion Group, "The Art of Destruction." While I was unnecessarily harsh in my criticism of the book, it was heavy on blanket statements, light on actual critical analysis and relied far too much on crutch words such as "transgressive," "extreme" and "apocalyptic." I received Barber's 1992 biography of poet & theorist Antonin Artaud as a birthday gift from my ex-girlfriend. The book is a much more successful endeavor for Barber, not only because it is the first exhaustive biography of Artaud in English, but also because of the author's obvious appreciation and deep knowledge of the topic. One of my criticisms of "The Art of Destruction" was how eager Barber was to reference his pet obsessions – Bataille, Guyotat, and yes, Artaud, without providing much critical weight beyond cursory name-dropping. Barber is obviously engaged with and knowledgeable enough concerning Artaud for me to, more often than not, trust his authorial voice.

The book's introduction, unfortunately, starts the book off in murky terrain. Statements like "The life and work of Antonin Artaud possess a raw power," sound nice enough, but say very little. After spewing out many contextually inappropriate words like "spore-like" and describing Deleuze's "A Thousand Plateaux" as "disfiguring" (I wrote in the margins, "how?), Barber begins to show a great theoretical understanding of Artaud, displayed in concise language. Statements such as "Language is used as a weapon to counter its own losses and those of the body which drives it…" and "…representation is fatal and unstoppable in the way it nullifies a text," in reference to Derrida's essays on Artaud, establish a critical foundation for the rest of the book.

The majority of the book is composed of well researched and smoothly written biography. Barber's charm is his vast sympathy for Artaud, not just as an artist, but also as a person. The second half of the book follows Artaud's psychic disintegration in Ireland and his years of incarceration. The ribald, transgressive diction Barber is so fond of does not crop up in his heart-breaking description of Artaud's tragic final years. Barber tends to side with Artaud in the more gossipy branches of history. Andre Breton actually comes off, to me personally, as a very sympathetic supporter and friend of Artaud in his final years, but Barber's at times blind support of Artaud pits the author against seemingly everyone in the poet's path. Barber writes that "it is conceivable, then, that Artaud's expulsion (from the Surrealist party) was a self-defensive move of desperation on Breton's part, to secure his leadership." As great a thinker and poet Artaud was, in many ways the superior to Breton, I don't personally see him as having possessed the composure, political acumen, and entrepreneurial aplomb Breton exercised over the Surrealists. I agree that Breton deserves to be taken to task for his reductive and restrictively tight rein on the Surrealists - Bataille for instance provided many brilliant criticisms of Breton. I simply disagree with Barber, and Artaud, that Communism and Hegalian philosophy were theoretical missteps for Breton. The Surrealists' support of Communism may have disintegrated into weak-acceptance of Stalin's totalitarianism, but I most definately believe that Breton had a strong conceptual base.

Occasionally the book falls prey to the gossip of history, I am reminded of a passage describing Anais Nin fellatiating Artaud, but for the most part it does an admirable job on remaining fair, composed and respectful. There are insightful critical analyses of Artaud's oeuvre, focusing on the period in which he wrote the texts composing "The Theatre and Its Double," as well as the incendiary final writings. The biographical information is invaluable, and oftentimes taken from primary sources, such as Artaud's doctor at Rodez, Gaston Ferdiere, and "Artaud's closest friend at the end of his life," Paule Thevenin, both who passed away between the writing of the biography and its publishing.

"Blows and Bombs" is a lean and well-researched biography. I am still somewhat wary of Barber, and the book's publisher, Creation Books, but I have to admit that the two also continue to fascinate me. Why else would I have picked up Creation Book's translation of Artaud's "Heliogabalus: The Crowned Anarchist" immediately upon finishing "Blows and Bombs?" Creation Books should be approached with a critical eye, particularly in regard to its tendency to imbue writers like Bataille, Genet and especially Artaud with an almost Jim Morrison-esque sex appeal, but it most definitely remains an exciting and courageous publishing house.

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