There is a before Artaud and an after Artaud.
There is a breakage in literature, a cataclysm, a beautiful and yet profoundly disturbing opus, which tears good intentions and formal pretensions to shreds with some of the most vicious, moving, sublime poetry in the universal academy of words.
I am still reeling from the effects of my first encounter in the 80’s! And there isn’t a day when I do not meditate on something the extraordinary Antonin Artaud has written.
My encounter with Artaud began with his masterpiece on Van Gogh. I wonder if we are yet capable of grasping the portent of this man’s vision, whether it be in its prophetic dimension, its revolutionary style or its exploration of the deep mind and body of the poet.
Artaud is still alive and breathing poetry in this afterlife between emotion and pulse, between stretched skin and blood, between the anvil and a new oration, between opium and the belting of stones against the flesh.
Extract from Correspondence with Jacques Riviere. Letter written by Antonin Artaud on 25th May 1924:
“A man possesses himself in flashes, and even when he possesses himself; he does not reach himself completely. He does not realize the constant cohesion of his forces without which all true creation is impossible. Nevertheless, this man exists. I mean to say that he has a distinct reality which redeems him. Should he be condemned to oblivion simply because he can give only fragments of himself? You yourself do not think so, and the proof of this is the importance which you attach to these fragments. For a long time I have been meaning to suggest to you that we put them together. I did not dare, and now your letter answers my desire. This is to tell you with what satisfaction I welcome the idea that you propose.
I am perfectly aware of the sudden stops and starts in my poems, they are related to the very essence of inspiration and proceed from my chronic inability to concentrate on an object. Because of a psychological weakness which affects the very substance of that which is usually called the soul and which is the emanation of our nervous force coagulated around objects. But this weakness affects the whole age, as witness Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Pierre Reverdy. But in their case the should is not psychologically damaged, it is not damaged substantially, but it is damaged at all points where it joins something else, it is not damaged outside of thought; what, then, is the source of the trouble, is it really the atmosphere of the age, a miracle floating in the air, a cosmic and evil anomaly, or the discovery of a new world, an actual expansion of reality? The fact nevertheless remains that they do not suffer and that I do suffer, not only in the mind but in the flesh and in my everyday soul. This lack of connection to the object which characterizes all of literature is in me a lack of connection to life. As for myself, I can truly say that I am not in the world, and this is not merely an attitude of the mind. My last poems seemed to me to show serious progress. Are they really so unpublishable in their totality? But what does it matter, I would rather show myself as I am, in my nonexistence and my rootlessness. One could in any case publish large fragments of them. And I believe that most of the stanzas, taken separately, are good. It is only putting them together that destroys their value. You will choose these fragments yourself, you will arrange the letters. In this area I can no longer be judge. But my primary concern is that no ambiguity arise as to the nature of the phenomena which I call to my defence. The reader must believe in a real sickness and not in a phenomenon of the age, a sickness which touches the essence of being and its central possibilities of expression, and which applies to a whole life.
A sickness which affects the soul in its most profound reality, and which infects its manifestations. The poison of being. A veritable paralysis. A sickness which deprives you of speech, memory, which uproots your thought.”
Maison de Santé d'Ivry - outside Paris -
where Antonin Artaud spent the last two years of his life
(Photographs: Marcus Reichert 1977)