Sunday, June 8, 2008
Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist by Antonin Artaud
Translated by Alexis Lykiard
In 1933, Stephen Barber explains in his introduction to "Heliogabalus," publisher Robert Denoel commissioned Antonin Artaud to write a book dramatizing the life of the infamous teenaged Roman Emperor, El-Gabalus, or as he is more commonly called, Heliogabalus. What Artaud actually wrote is, at its best, much better than that, as he attacks Hegalian History, as well as boldly mocking the Christian model of linear time. Tellingly, the feverish and pagan extravagances of the book occur roughly two-hundred years after Christ is born.
The short book is composed of three sections. The first, "The Cradle of Sperm" focuses on myth and pagan iconography while providing some historical and familial background for the story of the teenaged emperor. The expressive power of geography in reference to myth and religion is given particular attention. Artaud's assertions "…that in Syria the earth is living, and there are stones which are alive…" echo his South American journey amongst the Tarahumaras.
"The War of Principles' is the second, and arguably strongest section. The conceit of Roman decadence and ritual is, if not abandoned, at least marginalized, as he further investigates philosophical and aesthetic issues that fuel many of his writings elsewhere. Artaud addresses the problem of naming ("A thing named is a dead thing, and it's dead because it is set apart…"), mind and thought ("Principles are only of value to the mind, and to the thinking mind; but outside the mind that thinks, a principle is reduced to nothing…"), and an underlying concern, or at least striving toward, unity ("Nothing exists only as function, and all functions lead back to one…").
The last section, "Anarchy," is by far the least interesting, as it presents the narrative of the ascent and subsequent assassination of the young emperor known variously as Varius Avitus Bassianus, Elgabalus, Antoninus, Sardanapalus and Heliogabalus. Artaud does not seem to be particularly attached to either historical veracity or story-building, so the recitation of "facts," of which the reader can only guess concerning their truth, is by far the least inspiring part of the book.
Artaud sets up the emperor as the epitome of his Theatre of Cruelty. Since an actualized realization of the Theatre of Cruelty was difficult, if not impossible for him to enact (he considered the 'The Cenci' both a failure and move away from his concept of theatre) he transposes his ideas to the ancient Roman Empire, where "…the theatre was not on the stage, but in life." Heliogabalus is a cipher for Artaud himself. I know very little concerning the historical life of Heliogabalus, but I assume that Artaud grafted the name "Antoninus" onto the emperor. The two each possess multiple names, and they share a desire to enact a living experience which "…was poetry and theatre raised to the level of utmost veracious reality." Artaud's affinity with the short-lived emperor is further exposed as he writes that "I see Heliogabalus not as a madman, but as a rebel…," as an agent against both the "polytheistic anarchy" of established religion, as well as the incumbent monarchy. Well, he's talking about himself, isn't he?
Artaud's vitriolic form of skewed utopianism and humanism is on display throughout, as he writes the philosophy of the anarchist: "neither god nor master, I alone." It is when Artaud uses his ancient Roman setting as drapery for his own ideology that the book works best. As mentioned above, the middle section is my personal favorite, as it is in effect a self-contained essay on the matter of principality. Artaud's fascination at the time with mysticism and numerology pervades the first section, much to ill effect. The first section also contains many wonderful passages where Artaud dissects imperialism and empire's connection with the body. Some attempt is made to further plot along as well, although those segments didn't work well for me as a reader, since plot is of such little concern to the book itself. That is also my main concern with the final section, as we are given long descriptions of the battles leading up to Heliogabalus' reign, descriptions which seem to serve little other than to pad an already slim volume. Important opportunities for further investigation into his Theatre of Cruelty, as well as good chances for plot and character, are skimmed over, such as the emperor's slaying of his trusted mentor, Ganys. This is alluded to early on in the text, but never comes to much. The book's disregard for narrative is one of its strengths, so why does it continually lapse into half-hearted narrative threads?
"Heliogabalus" allows the reader to experience both the focused, theoretical Artaud prone to make clear, concise statements such as "…deep down, ideas are only to be judged by their form," as well a looser and more scatological Artaud. The text's looseness may require that a reader familiarize themselves with Artaud's theoretical and aesthetic concerns before reading 'Heliogabalus,' as the book is both a summary and realization of many concepts further explained elsewhere in his oeuvre. In his well-written Translator's Note following the text, Alexis Lykiard nicely sums up the text as he calls it a "mystico-historical essay," as Artaud is here refashioning and refuting history following an alchemical template both a product of and a reaction against reason and rationalism. The book is worth hunting down for the reader with an interest with Artaud, though I still think the City Lights Anthology or "The Theatre and Its Double" would best service anyone new to Artaud.