ARTAUD’S (ANTI-)THEATRICAL BODIES
By Rainer Nägele
And now I will say something which maybe will
amaze some people very much.
I am an enemy
I have always been one.
As much as I love theatre,
so much I am, just because of this, its enemy.
The issue shall be the dissembled body. What, then, are we talking about? In German, “sich verstellen” means to pose or stand as someone other than one is or believes to be. [Translator’s note: “verstellen” can mean both dissemble and displace.] This may happen for fraudulent reasons, but also in play, as children like to do, grown-ups often too and regularly on theatre stages. And people enjoy this one not being this one but that one. Even if one loved Oskar Werner’s boyishly melancholy face and the gracious movement of his gestures, one enjoyed seeing this body dissembled and disguised as Hamlet, Tasso and Jules.
Disguise is one of the most common and oldest ways of dissembling the body and the person presenting itself therein – presenting it as another person. Is the naked body, too, dissembled and dissemblable? Certainly, or there would be no eroticism.
Of course, there is the old saying that clothes make the man, and Gottfried Keller told a beautiful tale about it, in which the poor tailor doesn’t even want to disguise himself. The thing is that he has only got this one black Sunday suit and overcoat which in other people’s eyes turn him into a dazzling count. And it is hinted at that this dissembling transformation perhaps represents something closer to the truth than it may seem, that the poor tailor’s person possibly is disfigured towards truth; but not in the common operetta way where the poor orphan turns out to be the progeny of a count or king, but so that the apparent disguise and dissimulation serves to uncover the person’s nobility without a need for other parents.
What, then, would a not-dissembled body be? For one thing, it would be and is, invisible. The body, undissembled, is invisible because the view of it systematically dissembles it. But if I stand in front of a mirror or a camera does it capture me in my corporeality? Yes, certainly in my corporeality, but my body remains invisible even in the mirror, even on the photo, even if it exhibited itself naked. That which appears, e.g., in the mirror is not only dissembled inverted, but also in a very different manner. Between the body standing in front of the mirror and the corporeal figure appearing in it there is an abyss. The glass which separates them is harder than diamond. And even if it broke, only this corporeal figure would disappear and I would be alone again with a body which never is accessible to me as a whole body outside the mirror, never visible as a gestalt, and which can always be felt only in parts. The whole body is only to be had as an effigy, but as an effigy it ceases to be a body. The corporeal figure in the mirror and the photo doesn’t feel anything – it doesn’t have a body, even if it accurately reproduces the motor and mimic images of feeling.
There is a beautiful Chinese film whose title I can’t remember now, where a little boy with his camera obsessively photographs only backs of heads. Asked why he’s doing that, he simply says: so that people can see something of themselves which they normally cannot see.
When someone dissembles one thinks that she or he acts differently from how she or he really is. But that implies that one would have to know what or who one is. Disguises can also be attempts to follow this question, hoping that something of what one is may turn out just in this disguise. That in disguise only, one may become who one is. One could then slightly vary Pindar’s verse Werde der du bist erfahren[ii] (Become who you are experienced): Become who you are dissembled.
Brecht talks about the disfiguration towards truth in a world rather disfigured than dissembled by commodity fetishism. Just like in a mirror’s reflection a second reflection rectifies the first one’s inversion, so does the second, artificial, theatrical disfiguration through dissimulation rectify the first one. According to Brecht, it sometimes even needs the ghosts and phantoms in order to drive away the phantasm which the general dazzlement takes to be reality, and to make real things briefly appear. In modern theatre, the ghost’s role can be taken over by film projection: Since film represents reality in such a seemingly abstract way, it is well suited for confrontations with reality. It can affirm or refute. It can remind or prophesy. It is able to take over the role of those apparitions without which there was no great drama for long periods – and the best ones at that. But it actually plays a very revolutionary role, because as a ghost makes naked reality appear, the good deity of revolution.[iii] The spectral reflex of bodies on the screen, the abstracted, distilled light and shadow images of the bodies are supposed to make naked reality appear, as if reality was an undressed body.
The first scene of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera makes it clear how difficult, how dialectically entangled the representation of dissimulation is. It is about dissimulation in the representation of disfigured bodies. Filch, a young beggar, has at first tried to panhandle on his own and to exhibit and expose himself as what he is in his plight. But because of Peachum’s organisational talent and business sense, begging has become a strictly organised enterprise, so that what Filch first gets is a drubbing lesson by a group of Peachum’s organised beggars. Now he is standing before Peachum in order to enter the begging business as a regular employee. Peachum instructs him about the five basic types of misery in which beggars are categorised, disguised, disfigured and dissembled: Outfit A: Victim of traffic progress. The jaunty Lame [...], aggravated by an amputated arm. Outfit B: Victim of martial arts. The onerous Trembler, annoys the passers-by, works with revulsion [...]. Outfit C: Victim of industrial upturn. The deplorable Blind or the High School of the Art of Begging. Young Filch receives outfit D – curiously enough, there is no mention of what it consists of. Anyway, he has to deliver his own clothes which Peachum again wants to use for his fifth class and outfit. Outfit E: Young man who has seen better days. This, however, is Filch’s own situation, and he wonders why he can’t simply represent himself in his own clothes instead of pretending to be someone else. Peachum, who likes to give lessons, instructs him here, too: Because no one believes your own plight, my son. If you have an aching stomach and you say so then that only raises disgust.[iv] The beggar only becomes credible as one dissembled.
In autumn 1930, the beggar Filch was played by Antonin Artaud in the French version of Pabst’s Threepenny Opera film. Contrary to the other two films shot in Berlin in which Artaud appeared, he had very positive memories of this role, about which he wrote in a letter to Pierre Bousquet in 1946: I shot a film of no consequence under the title Coup de feu à l'aube. I had already participated in another one the year before, of which however I like to keep my memories; it was called: l'Opéra de quat'-sous, and where I was visited by a policeman who frightened me, but then turned out to be a friend and told me to spit on Hitlerism.[v] Poor A.A. plays the beggar in poor B.B.’s most successful piece which made the latter rich for a while. Artaud likes to keep the memories of this role. He played it at a time when he himself was working towards a radical revolution of theatre. But strange: no word in this letter or elsewhere about the piece in which he performed dissembled as an actor.
The memory appears in a letter about deportations, the deportations which had occurred horribly and massively in the years following this performance and preceding the letter, as well as the deportations experienced by Artaud as such: Ayant été déporté d'Irlande, interné au Havre, transféré du Havre à Rouen, de Rouen à l'asile Sainte-Anne à Paris, de l'asile Sainte-Anne à Paris à l'asile de Ville-Évrard dans la Seine, de l'asile de Ville-Évrard dans la Seine à l'asile de Rodez, je connais les déportations.[vi] Thus abruptly begins the long letter to Pierre Bousquet who had been deported to Germany in 1942: “As one who has been deported ... I know the deportations.” Deportation, transfer, relocation from place to place, from site to site are discussed, and the letter not only talks about such transfers, changes of place, location and scene, but also executes them sentence by sentence. The scene where the actor Artaud plays Brecht’s dissembling beggar immediately changes to the other scene with the policeman who advises the ‘real’ Artaud (but who might he be?) to spit on upcoming Hitlerism (and its very real deportations). And this abrupt change of scene maybe comes closer to the core of Brecht’s piece than many loquacious theories. But it also especially touches a core of Artaud’s life and theatre and of his vision of the relation of theatre and life.
Deportation literally: a being carried away from the place where one believes to belong, a dis-placement, re-placement in its most frightful sense. [Translator’s note: again the author here is playing upon the German words Verstellung and Entstellung). Artaud writes that he has suffered through this deportation meticulously; and he specifies what meticulously means exactly: not being allowed to forget or lose any of the horrors of the deportation. And after the evocation of this dis-placement through deportation shared with the letter’s addressee, a dash and an abrupt change of scene: – Enfin, cher Mr. Pierre Bousquet, nous avons un corps (“– After all, dear Mr Pierre Bousquet, we do have a body”). But again the change of scene points at a core, at a kind of primordial deportation. What about the body which we all have? It was assigned to us, attributed (attribué) by means of a father and a mother which all of us were given, too. Here, though, the big hole opens: in reality we do not remember this. Childhood memories generally begin at 18 months or 2 years of age, and before that we do not know where we were. –[vii] Between the delivery of the body to us and our first memory of our body there is a temporal abyss. Where our memory starts is already far removed from that point in time, that place where we arrived at our body, or it at ourselves: but was it with us at all, or rather beside us – or weren’t we actually beside ourselves, as it sometimes happens later in our life, too? The first transfer of the body to us already was a primordial deportation, a primordial dis-placement. And all further deportations whose horrors and humiliations Artaud depicts and remembers, eventually again refer back to that primordial monstrous and offending reality: that we are not the masters of our body. And as if enough were not enough, it was during this primeval time that we were not only given our body, but also the name which identifies us. And again this name not only identifies us, but also inscribes us into the network of a society and all the specific deportations following the original one. Just like the deportation of Pierre Bousquet, born French and victim of the Vichy Regime: Well then, Mr Pierre Bousquet, you have always believed that your name is Pierre Bousquet, and it is as Pierre Bousquet, and because you were named Pierre Bousquet, that one day you arrived from nowhere in France in a French family, and since this France was at war and had been vanquished, you felt compelled on a certain day to undergo without protest a measure of deportation […] by the infamous Vichy Regime.[viii] For Artaud, this deportation is the paradigm and the sum of all social deportations of one’s own body and being. And it is this primordial situation which for Artaud forms the basis of all horrors: But the terrible thing about this, Mr Pierre Bousquet, is not the transplantation, it is not even the fact that one is not one’s own master; rather it lies in the monstrous power of this matter which has no name, and which manifestly, but only manifestly, calls itself society, government, police, administration, and against which in all history there was not even the means of violent revolutions. For the revolutions have disappeared, but society, the government, the police, the administration, the schools, meaning the traditions and transfers of opinions via the totems of education, have always kept up.[ix]
That is the one side: the socialised, stolen, totemised body; on the other side the vision of another, not socialisable, mysterious body with which we are irrevocably alone. In Isidore Ducasse, who gave himself the name Lautréamont, the possibility of this other body appears: I insist that Isidore Ducasse was not hallucinating, no visionary, but a genius who throughout his life never ceased to see clearly when he glanced into the fallow of a yet unspent unconscious and poked around in it. That is, his own, not another one, for there are no places in our body where we could meet with the collective consciousness. And in our body we are alone.[x] However, in a strange dialectic this body evades me just where it lies open before me: I have a belly and intestines, these intestines are no mystery to me. But open my belly and operate me, the black of my intestines then becomes a mystery, the thin skin of a true body.[xi]
With this we have arrived at the explosive, antagonistic centre of Artaud’s theatre: a theatre which exemplarily for modern theatre of the 20th century stages the body, at the same time ripping it apart and destroying it in the mad desire to appropriate that primordial transfer, the gift of the body itself before all deportation and displacement.
But careful when we are talking about the model role of Artaud’s theatre. Diction makes a decisive distinction here. Artaud’s theatre is not, and cannot be a model and example for any other theatre, maybe not even for his own. It doesn’t offer an image and model which could be imitated. As an image and model, it would already be the dissimulation of its own possibilities. It is an idol or ideal, fallow ground before all images, plantations and transplantations. Certainly the images then spurt out like the shafts of light in Lukas von Leyden’s painting, in which Artaud reads the very physical metaphysics and the metaphysical physics of his own vision of theatre staging, or rather transfers it to his staging. But none of these images are repeatable, each one a moment in a firework which derives the power of its effects from the singularity of its disappearance.
Even Balinese theatre, which in Le théâtre et son double appears as the most vivid counterpoint of occidental psychological theatre, for the later Artaud loses its exemplariness where it repeats its singular theatrical transfer, as Artaud wirtes in one of his texts for his own last and one-time performance at the theatre of Vieux Colombier:
Theatre is a passionate overshooting the borders,
a terrible transfer
of the body
to the body.
This transfer cannot be reproduced twice.
None more blasphemous than the system of the Balinese which consists of taking up again the once produced
instead of seeking a new one,
in a system of specific prestidigitation,
in order to rob the astral photography
of its gestures.[xii]
By the way, this is the second verse of the text whose first verse is the motto preceding this text.
Artaud’s Theatre is still exemplary for 20th century modern theatre because it refers to that layer before all images from which every theatre has to produce its own images ever anew. But being a kind of blueprint also means that this layer is not simply undetermined emptiness, but as a pre-image it is already related to images. The determining exemplariness of all our, i.e., human images (we know nothing or little about others) though, the transcendental possibility and condition of our images, is exactly that invisible body which we are and which we have. The body’s visibility is suspended in this between of being and having, between the corporeality of the mirror-image of which the mother tells her child: That is you, and the headache I have. The ache and of course the lust, too, but ever again insistently the pains are the labour pains of body phenomena. They remind one of having a body. Even the manifestly solid corporeality of Ernst Bloch needed a cold, fever and rheumatic pains to remind him that he had a body: until now I did not even know that I had a body, Ernst Bloch writes to a friend after no less than 33 years of living with this body.[xiii]
Invisible as the body in this between of being and having may be, it is still so sensual, so carnal. It is not by chance that this in-between also is the scene of obscenity and eroticism. And it is especially the scene of modern theatre. It has been pointed out more than once that the modern theatre scene, other than the tradition of classical drama, ostentatiously exhibits the body on stage again. While not untrue, this is shortened and becomes false if one succumbs to the fantasy that this might be the happy return to a natural, present body. On stage, too, the body mainly manifests in its pains, its fragmentations and decompositions. Brecht may evoke circus and sports stadiums as models for theatre, but the boxers and clowns who saw themselves in two, and Brueghel’s Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) who models for “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, always also are radical critique of those body fantasies which Nazi sculptors and painters loved to exhibit – the more to extradite the imaginary of the real bodies to the deadly war machinery with their pumping iron phantasms. By the way, Brueghel’s Dulle Griet also appears even in 1945 in one of Artaud’s texts about the return of theatre to its sacral principles – as a figure referring to the sacral layers and strange bacchanals of Flemish theatre.[xiv]
Brecht once wrote that theatre feeds on the desire to see. Desire, on the other hand, feeds on the withdrawal of its object. Both theatre and eroticism are driven by this longing to see, the more so, the more obsessive, the more the body they are driven to see (and to show) is withdrawn into invisibility. It is not seeing which makes the shame, but that one never sees enough, never is close enough to that which one is seeking, resulting in shame and despair, as they are drastically depicted in Kafka’s novel “The Castle”: There they lay, but not so abandoned as then in the night. She searched for something and he searched for something, angry, grimacing, boring their heads into each other’s breast they searched, and their embraces and their rearing bodies did not make them forget but reminded them of their duty to seek, like dogs despairingly scratch in the ground, so they scratched at their bodies and helplessly disappointed, just to fetch last happiness, their tongues sometimes ran broadly over the other’s face.[xv] And if it is suggested here that the second love scene at the castle does not have the same devotion or abandon as the first one, this doesn’t at all mean that the first one must have been the abandon of two bodies to each other, and in familiarity with each other and with themselves. Rather, it was abandon to the extreme alienness: Hours, in which K. had the incessant feeling of getting lost or being so far abroad like no man before him, a place so foreign that even the air contained no part of his native air, in which one would suffocate from alienness and yet in whose insensate temptations one could do nothing but go on, get lost even more.[xvi]
For theatre, however, the question then arises: how can such an ever withdrawing, ever dissembled body be presented, and how can one talk about it? Like the tongues which in Kafka’s love scene despairingly, helplessly and broadly trace the other’s face and skin as if a deeper depth than the skin could be found, Artaud’s texts seek a language, a tongue, a presentation form for this impossible something which displays a deceptive substance and consistency in the name of the body. The talk-being adores its body because it believes to have it. In reality, it doesn’t have it, but the body is its only consistency – a mental consistency, to be sure, for its body absconds any moment. It is nearly a miracle that it subsists during the time of its consumption, which indeed and, to state it clearly, indeed is relentless.[xvii] How does one put something on stage which any moment makes itself scarce, to become dust?
With relentless consequence, Artaud’s texts drill after this problem, so far until eventually theatre itself is blown up because it is incapable of grasping the enigma of the body to which it is solely appendant. Like Kafka’s man from the countryside who spends his life in front of the open door of Law and still cannot enter, although this door is open only for him, so Artaud’s body and language are standing in front of a theatre which would be open only to them, and still cannot enter. In a certain sense, Artaud has never brought a body into his theatre. The stages and scenarios in which he played himself, the pieces he staged, even Cenci, still are not his theatre, which could be his theatre only if it was able once and for all to dissemble the bodies in such a way that the appeared undissembled.
Instead, the in-between of the suspended body spouts forth paradox after paradox. The theatre which according to Artaud should free itself from all predetermined language, so that body and space themselves become language in the time of their respective own articulation, we have only been given in Artaud’s pre-scriptions for this theatre. The corporeality this theatre wants to open up to, which it wants to stage, in its staging becomes metaphysics. But the metaphysics of which Artaud talks and writes is the blowing up of just that metaphysics which had nurtured itself on the structure of a clear opposition of physics and metaphysics, of body and mind.
Artaud’s speech of metaphysics is one of the 20th century’s great attempts at newly articulating the old speeches of body and mind, of finding another language for just that enigma which the invisible, suspended, dissembled body presents. First of all, he wants to get rid of the old opposition: i presume that there is neither body nor mind but modalities of a unitary force and effect. And the question after a rivalry between these modalities does not even arise.[xviii]
Similar phrasings appear again and again independently in very different authors of the 20th century. E.g., in an early note by Benjamin: Firstly, there is no mental behaviour in the sense of being intrinsically different from the corporeal one, or even different in its appearance. The purported difference, that alien mentality as opposed to our own one is only given indirectly through the interpretation of alien corporeality, does not apply. Alien as well as own mentality is given to us directly, and always in a certain connection or at least on a certain basis of corporeality.[xix] Or Brecht at the end of the 1920s: The times without instinct have a mistrust of the head. […] and it is the people without bodies who expect something from the suppression of the head. There is a fantasy of the body and a fantasy of the mind (meaning that there are two kinds of fantasy rather than the border between body and mind).[xx] Other quotations along these lines could be added nearly at will. They all are guided by the experience that the subsistence of the body, as Lacan later formulated it, is a mental one, and that its actual, factual condition is that of its self-consumption, its relentless exhaustion and absorption.
But once again, ever again and once more one has to ask with Artaud: how does such a body arrive at representation, how does it become theatrical? It would be easy to say (and already has been said almost like this here) that it is not representable, and that exactly because of this Artaud’s theatre only consists of his pre-scriptions for theatre, in a prelude without an act. But that needs at least a small correction.
Certainly there has never (yet?) been a theatre which could have grasped Artaud’s body, our body and thought it through to the end. Which is why Artaud in final consequence could only plead for the destruction of theatre. But Artaud’s body belonged to theatre like perhaps no body before or after him. And so, something strange happened: instead of his body entering the stage, his body became the stage for the absolute theatre of cruelty. In the first place this means that it is by no means right to say that his writings on theatre are only pre-scriptions.
There are some clues that even writing these writings was an act of theatre. If finally Artaud literally holds himself and his spine upright with a pencil, that, too, is a consequential part of cruel theatre. But of which we have more than clues and more than the hunches of a reader who cannot get away from these writings any more, are at least some of the performances of these texts, and especially of that text which most intensely stages the body at the theatre – “Le théâtre et la peste” – and whose recital according to ear- and eyewitnesses in every sense of the word, a theatre performance of the most impressing and frightening kind.
The most impressive description of this performance comes from Anaïs Nin: His face was distorted with fear, his hair soaked in sweat. His eyes wide open, his muscles stiffened, his fingers fought against torpor. He let us feel his dry and burning throat, the pain, the fever, the fire in his entrails. He was being tortured. He yelled. He raved. He performed his own death, his own crucifixion. [...] People at first were breathless. Then they began to laugh. Everyone laughed. They whistled. Then, one after the other, they began to leave with lots of noise, talking and protesting. Going out they slammed the door.[xxi] From a letter Artaud’s shortly before this act of a Theatre of Cruelty it becomes clear that even the preparation, the writing of the text was part of the performance, part of this staging – but staged by whom? These days I am literally obsessed, haunted and in a unique way totally engaged by this recital about “theatre and the plague”, which I am supposed to give on Thursday, a hard and elusive topic, and where the affinities which it imposes on the mind succumb to a movement opposed to our usual thinking.[xxii] The plague which makes Artaud’s body become his theatre here, he had already felt a few years earlier. On being informed that Abel Gance was planning a film adaptation of The House of Usher, Artaud wrote to him on November 27, 1927 in the hope that he might get the leading part: My life is that of Usher and his gloomy delapidation. I have the plague in the soul of my nerves and I suffer.[xxiii] Of course, taken by itself such a sentence doesn’t tell much, it could even cause mistrust. Actors who believe to be predestined for a role because they identify with the figure are not necessarily the best ones. But it is the nagging, infinitely exhausting work of a whole opus which here lends the sentence another resonance. And even taken by itself, something in the phrasing runs askance to common phrases and sayings – especially when the body and its sensations are the matter. If Artaud had the plague in his soul or in his nerves, this could perhaps be domesticated rhetorically and metaphorically. But ‘the plague in the soul of my nerves’ makes one perk up, because in such a turn of phrase the old metaphysical structures become decrepit.
This, however, is exactly the work of the plague and of theatre, not only since Artaud. The plague is a primordial scene of theatre. It opens the Sophocleian Oedipus tragedy. Where it appears it plays a peculiar double role. It is the miasma, the maculation asking for purification, for catharsis. But also it already is catharsis, in which everything dissolves in an infinite analysis. Wherever in the course of occidental history the plague is the issue – and later, too, when it is supplanted by the cholera like in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice –, it appears as the dissolver which liquidates the ostensibly solid but long dilapidated structures of culture and society as well as character itself in an infernal act, which at the same time is bordering on salvation.
It is not by chance that the Aristotelian term of catharsis has always raised the question after its sphere of action: is it a mental, moral, psychological purification or a physical-material, a corporeal purgation? Talk about the plague which in the text and its performance by Artaud itself becomes cathartic theatre, subverts this alternative and thus also the alternative between actual and metaphorical relation. Here, too, that which irritates us is an in-between which suspends familiar alternatives with the body and the metaphor and also, as Artaud saw clearly, the relation of theatre and the plague in the irritating between. Shortly after the scandalous recital, on April 8, 1933 Artaud wrote to André Rolland de Renéville: This truth of which I am speaking and which irritates, is that which you call a metaphor and which still is none, the relation between theatre and the plague also applies to my mind, which I consider to be organically transformed by an evil which keeps it from being what it should be. In this terrible fight there is [...] an embarrassing spectacle which angers people who are insufficiently prepared for a certain rigorous-insistent way of thinking.[xxiv] The suspension of given fixations in a dissolving between does not indicate a lack of rigorous thinking but, on the contrary, its consequence. Only where there is an insistency of thinking (un certain resserrement de la pensée) does the sphere of this between open up, where the invisible body and the plague obscenely enter the stage.
Also, it is the between of staging and destruction of theatre: the invisible body which enables theatre at its extreme borders and possibilities also destroys it, just like the latter again destroys the body. This, too, is implied in the double task of the plaque which at the same time liquidates, putrifies and petrifies; Artaud’s formula is putrefaction et petrification. If the starting point of theatre today is the liquidation of all values in which we are living,[xxv] then its last consequence is the liquidation of theatre, too. At first, the conception of the Theatre Alfred Jarry only seems to be about the destruction of theatre as it existed in Artaud’s time: Conscious of the decline of theatre in the face of the prevalent international technique of cinema, the Theatre Alfred Jarry strives to contribute to the ruin of theatre, as it currently exists in France, by specific theatrical means, and to draw into this destruction all literary or artistic ideas, all psychological conventions, all plastic artificialities etc.[xxvi] But even here there is more at stake, even this already is about theatre in general, as Artaud wrote in 1928 to Jean Paulhan: Regarding the Demonstration Jarry, your contributor of the February issue of N.R.F. maintains that it questions the principle of theatre. But the Theatre Jarry has nothing to do with theatre.[xxvii]
The more consequently this theatre is getting liquidated, the more intense Artaud himself – but who or what would that be? – becomes the scene of the Theatre of Cruelty: in him the radical anti-theatre takes place, in all layers. I have neither theatre nor stage except the theatre of my subconscious and my heart, he wrote in 1945 in the same text which also evokes Brueghels Dulle Griet.[xxviii] It is not his consciousness but his subconscious and his heart who make the scene, figures belonging to that between which evades the alternative of mind or body, and belongs entirely to the very material and physical invisible body which at the same time is so elusive with regard to perception, and which is also the place of theatre.
Like this body of Artaud became the site, the other site of theatre in April 1933 at the recital of “Le théâtre et la peste”, so again in a last effort in his performance after his discharge from the asylum in Rodez in Paris on January 13, 1947.[xxix] There is no actual text for this performance, only notes and texts which were written with regard to this event. From the reports of eyewitnesses we know that among other things he recited the great poems Le Retour d'Artaud-le-Mômo, Centre-Mère et Patron-Minet and La culture Indienne, and that he confronted his audience with the mythical biography of his real sufferings and persecutions. Maurice Saillet remarks how his hands fluttered about his face like two angry birds and dug into it and how he, apparently raving – but what is appearance here, what reality? –, calls the performance theatre as theatre: C'est encore du théâtre.
It is still theatre and yet again no more, or if it still is theatre, then as the staging of its downfall, the insane yet lucid battle of the theatrical body against itself – which is nothing else but the body’s most lucid perception of itself. This was exactly what André Breton accused him of in a letter: that he had made himself theatre, that in the final run he was an actor, a theatre man after all. Artaud, just because he – lucidly enough – could recall just this insight C'est encore du théâtre to himself and his audience during his performance, was deeply affected by this allegation which does not know what is at stake. In a series of letters to Breton, Artaud again and again returns to this issue: Yes, I have appeared on a stage site, and again, the last time, at the theatre of Vieux Colombier, but with the obvious intention of breaking its frame, blowing it up from inside; and I do not believe that the spectacle of a person who roars and shouts until he vomits his innards is a real theatrical spectacle.[xxx] Of course, Artaud also knows that even anti-theatre is still theatre as long as the actor stays in control of his body and his gestures: the law of theatre, that the actor keeps control of his abilities, I wanted to lose mine.[xxxi] But indeed: I wanted to. And where there is a will there always remains a trace of control which leads to the ultimate antinomy of the body’s between: the will to achieve extreme impossibility, the un-dissimulation of a body, around which all the late texts of Suppôts et Supliciations are centred.
Some of the texts gain Zen qualities in the attempt to describe this impossibility: There is the fact that my hand is burning, which when I am thinking of it is already endangered as a fact; having the feeling that my hand is burning means entering another sphere, when I have the idea that my hand is burning I am not in my hand any more, but in a state of overview, in that state into which the spying mind has lured me in order to leave it more than just my hand and its pain, that is, a whole world of terms.[xxxii] A hand and its pain, yet without a feeling or idea of pain. Would that be the impossible un-dissembled body? Without the feeling and idea of pain, but still pain of a hand? A pain per se, an obvious pain at hand but handed out to no one.
The short circuit then would be to relinquish all thinking, all ideas, all feeling, letting oneself sink into the darkness of the invisible body. But Artaud insisted on writing, on thinking to the last moment, with frequently flashing moments of a blinding lucidity. And it was this lucidity, not some kind of mystical obscurantism which here – as in all cases where real enlightenment was, and is, meets the darkness. The un-dissembled body, if it existed, if it presented itself, would not be before and outside of thinking and feeling, but in the most consequent course through thinking, pain and trace to its extreme borders, where maybe something else would turn up in the disappearance of the last trace: traceless : perceptible.
[i] Et maintenant je vais dire une chose qui va peut-être stupéfier bien des gens.
Je sui l'ennemi
Je l'ai toujours été.
Autant j'aime le théâtre
autant je suis, pour cette raison-là, son ennemi.
(Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1177).
[ii] After Hölderlin’s translation of Pindar’s verse in the 2nd Pythian Ode genoi oios essi mathôn (FHA 15, 218/19).
[iii] Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke. Suhrkamp Taschenbuchausgabe. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp: 1970, 15,284.
[iv] Bertolt Brecht, Werke. Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. Berlin / Frankfurt a.M.: Aufbau-Verlag / Suhrkamp Verlag, 1988, 2, 236f.
[v] Je tournais un film sans importance applelé Coup de feu à l'aube. J'en avais tourné un dans le courant de l'année précédente au souvenir duquel par contre je tiens et qui s'appelait: l'Opéra de quat'sous et où j'avais reçu la visite d'un gendarme qui me fit peur, puis qui se révéla comme un ami et me dit cracher sur l'hitlérisme. (Lettre à Pierre Bousquet, 16 mai 1946, Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres complPtes. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1974, XI, 268ff. - Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1072).
[vi] Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1068.
[vii] Ibid., 1069.
[viii] Ainsi donc, vous, Mr. Pierre Bousquet, vous êtes toujours cru vous appeler Mr. Pierre Bousquet et c'est en tant que Pierre Bousquet et parce que vous vous appeliez Pierre Bousquet, donc un jour remonté du néant en France dans une famille de Français, que la France ayant été en guerre et ayant été vaincue vous vous êtes trouvé obligé, un certain jour, de vous soumettre sans protester à une mesure de déportation prise contre tous les jeunes gens de votre âge après la fin de la dernière guerre, sous le gouvernement crapuleux de Vichy. (Ibid., 1069).
[ix] Mais l'horrible da la chose, Mr. Pierre Bousquet, n'est pas pour moi la transplantation, il n'est même pas dans le fait de n'être pas on maître, il est dans l'insolite pouvoir de cette chose qui n'a pas de nom, et qui en surface mais en surface seulement s'appelle société, gouvernement, police, administration et contre laquelle il n'y eut même le recours, dans l'histoire, de la force des révolutions. Car les révlutions ont disparu, mais la société, le gouvernement, la police, l'administration, les écoles, je veux dire les transmisssions et transferts de croyances par les totems de l'enseignement, sont toujours resté debout. (Ibid. 1070).
[x] J'insiste sur ce point qu'Isidore Ducasse n'était ni un halluciné, ni un visionnaire, mais un génie, qui ne cessa toute sa vie d'y voir clair quand il regardait et tisonnait dans la jachère de l'inconscient encore inutilisé. Le sien, et rien de plus, car il n'y a pas dans notre corps de points où nous puissions nous rencontrer avec la conscience de tous. Et dans notre corps nous sommes seuls. (A. Artaud, Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1253)
[xi] J'ai un ventre et des intestins, ces intestins ne sont pas pour moi un mystère. Mais qu'on m'ouvre le ventre et qu'on m'opère, le noir de mes intestins deviendra un mystère, la pellicule d'un corps vrai. (Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1363).
[xii] Le théâtre est un débordement passionnel,
un épouvantable transfert
Ce transfert ne peut pas se reproduire deux fois.
Rien de plus impie que le systême des Balinais qui consiste après avoir une fois reproduit ce transfert
au lieu d'en rechercher un autre
de recourir à un système d'envoûtement particuliers
afin de priver
la phototraphie astrale
des gestes obtenus.
(Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1177).
[xiii] Letter to Johann Wilhelm Muehlon, 7. 8. 1919: Ernst Bloch, Briefe 1903–1975. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1985, I, 228.
[xiv] “Le retour de la France aux principes sacrés”, in: Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 964.
[xv] Franz Kafka, Das Schloss. Kritische Ausgabe. Hrsg. v. Malcolm Pasley. Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer Verlag, 1981, 1.1, 75.
[xvi] Ibid., 1.1, 69.
[xvii] Le parlêtre adore son corps, parce qu'il croit qu'il l'a. En réalité, il ne l'a pas, mais son corps est sa seule consistance - consistance mentale, bien entendu, car son corps fout le camp à tout instant. Il est déjà assez miraculeux qu'il subsiste durant le temps de sa consumation, qui est de fait, du fait de le dire, inexorable. (J. Lacan, Le séminaire XXIII. Le sinthome. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2005, 66).
[xviii] je prétends qu'il n'y a ni corps ni esprit, mais des modalités d'une force et d'une action uniques. Et la question de la rivalité entre ces deux modalités n'a même pas à se poser. (Oeuvres complètes. VIII, 222 - Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 725).
[xix] W. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1980, VI,65.
[xx] “Über die Operette”  BF 21,239–15,92.
[xxi] Il avait le visage convulsé d'angoisse, et ses cheveux étaient trempés de sueur. Ses yeux se dilataient, ses muscles se raidissaient, ses doigt luttaient pour garder leur souplesse. Il nous faisait sentir sa gorge sèche et brûlante, la souffrance, la fièvre, le feu des entrailles. Il était à la torture. Il hurlait. Il délirait. Il représentait sa propre mort, sa propre crucifixion. [...] Les gens eurent d'abord le souffle coupé. Puis ils commencèrent à rire. Tout le monde riait! Ils sifflaient. Puis, un par un, ils commencèrent à s'en aller à grand bruit, en parlant, en protestant. Ils claquaient la porte sortant. (quoted in: Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres complètes. V: Autour du Théâtre et son double et des Cencis. Paris: Gallimard, 1979, p.281).
[xxii] je suis ces jours-ci littéralement obsédé, hanté et uniquement préoccupé par la conférence que je dois faire jeudi sur le "Théâtre & la Peste", sujet dur et fuyant, et où les affinités qu'il impose à l'esprit subissent un mouvement inverse de celui de notre pensée habituelle. (Letter, April 3, 1933 to Anaïs Nin, V,145f.).
[xxiii] Ma vie est celle d'Usher et de sa sinistre masure. J'ai la pestilence dans l'âme de mes nerfs et j'en souffre. (Letter to Abel Gance, Nov. 27, 1927, III,130).
[xxiv] Cette vérité dont je vous parle et qui irrite est que ce que vous appelez une métaphore et qui n'en est pas une, sur les rapports entre le théâtre et la peste, vaut également pour mon esprit, que je considère comme organiquement altéré par un mal qui l'empêche d'être ce qu'il devrait être. Il y a dans cette lutte affreuse entre moi et les analgies que je pressens, et de par mon impuissance à les pétrifier dans des termes, à me rendre physiquement maître de la totalité de mon sujet, un spectacle gênant et qui agace les gens pas assez préparés à un certain resserrement de la pensée. (Letter to André Rolland de Renéville, April 8, 1933, V,147).
[xxv] la liquidation de toutes les valeurs sur lesquelles nous vivons (V,10).
[xxvi] Le Théâtre Alfred Jarry, conscient de la défaite du théâtre devant le développement envahissant de la technique internationale du cinéma, se propose par des moyens spécifiquement théâtraux de contribuer à la ruine du théâtre tel qu'il existe actuellement en France, en entraînant dans cette destruction toutes les idées littéraires ou artistiques, toutes les conventions psychologiques, tous les artifices plastiques, etc. (II, 39).
[xxvii] En ce qui concerne la manifestation Jarry, c'est le principe même du théâtre que votre collaborateur met en cause dans le numéro de février de la N.R.F. Mais le théâtre Jarry n'a rien à faire avec le théâtre. (Letter to Jean Paulhan, 1928, III, 132).
[xxviii] Je n'ai ni théâtre ni scène, que le théâtre de mon inconscient et de mon coeur. ("Le retour de la France aux principes sacrés" – Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 966.
[xxix] Cf. die eyewitness accounts of Maurice Saillet and André Gide, quoted in: Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1190f.
[xxx] Eh oui, je suis apparu sur une scène, encore une fois, la dernière, au théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, mais dans l'intention visible d'en faire sauter le cadre, et de le faire sauter de l'intérieur; et je ne crois pas que le spectacle d'un homme qui brame et hurle des fureurs B en vomir ses intestins soit un spectacle bien théâtral. (Letter to Breton, Feb. 28 (?) 1947 – Évelyne Grossman dates the letter to March 1 or 2: Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1218).
[xxxi] Ibid., 1219.
[xxxii] Il y a le fait que ma main brûle, c'est entrer dans un autre rayon, si j'ai l'idée que ma main brûle, je ne suis déjà plus dans ma main mais en état de supervision, cet état où l'esprit espion m'a fait venir pour que je lui cède plus que ma main et sa douleur, mais un monde de conceptions. (Oeuvres. Édition établie, présentée et annotée par Évelyne Grossman. Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2004, 1385).
(Translation: David Ender, 2010-05-10)