What would it mean to consider the last works of Antonin Artaud, including his major radio piece, To Have Done With the Judgment of God—written after his return to language following years of aphasia during his incarceration in the psychiatric asylum of Rodez and upon his return to Paris just before his death—as poetry? Based upon a veritable rhetoric of repulsion and abjection, effecting an obsessive resistance to readability, Artaud utilized numerous tactics to reject the reader: unmentionable blasphemy, putrid scatology, unintelligible glossolalia, hideous violence, abhorrent politics, obscene curses, unfathomable contradictions, bewildering lists, inexorable negations, disorienting syntax, unsettling non sequiturs, undefinable neologisms, uncanny repetitions. Were these writings to be inserted into the French poetic canon, they would necessitate a radical reconsideration of poetry and poetics, indeed of the French language itself, based upon the nihilistic powers of performance and performativity.
Mysticism & Madness
As I began writing this essay on 3 April 2016, I received my daily installment of the Oxford English Dictionary “Word of the Day”: pishogue, a borrowing from Irish variously meaning a spell, incantation, or charm—usually used to cure illnesses—etymologically related to magic, witchcraft, and sorcery. This coincidence might guide our thoughts. In August 1937 Antonin Artaud embarked on a pilgrimage to Ireland, the land of cabbages and crosses, carrying what he believed to be the mystical cane of Saint Patrick—the most cherished relic of the Irish Church—which he later claimed to be the very cane that Christ carried in the desert as he fought against the demons that tormented him.1 On 8 September 1937, Artaud wrote to André Breton what was to be his last sane statement: “I leave Galway and go toward my Destiny.”2 This destiny would unfold in Dublin, where Artaud was to speak in the name of God and announce the imminent destruction of forms, the disappearance of Being, and the return to the absolute in the person of Christ following the destruction of the world by fire that would take place one month later, on 9 November 1937. Upon arriving in Dublin he sought refuge in a Jesuit monastery, created a public disturbance, and was manhandled by the police, arrested, and deported to France, where he was immediately placed in a psychiatric hospital. In the commotion his magic cane was lost. On 8 November 1937—the day before the announced destruction of the world—Artaud was pronounced mentally ill and was interned in the first of a series of psychiatric hospitals in which he would spend the rest of his life. The mystical pilgrimage ended in madness. Artaud would plunge into a delirious Christianity, a private religion expressed in a private language by a psychotic who was both man and woman, living and dead, God and the Devil; a man who was to pronounce over and over the impossible enunciation, “I am dead.” It is from this horrific and morbid rite of passage that the final works of Artaud would emerge.
Artaud suffered a thousand deaths during his incarceration, claiming to be he who was tortured on Golgotha, an identification with Christ that was one of pure equivocation, simultaneously the ecstasy and the blasphemy of mystical-psychotic delirium. His body was Pandemonium, abode of all demons, infernal riot. There was no way to resist, as they attempted “to sweep me away in their sexual hyperaesthesia, their libidinous mannerism, their salacious erotic sensibilisation, their carnal obsession with the abject and infectuous flesh, their phallic copulative delirium, their concrete corporeal erotisation, their complete affective beastialisation, their total sexual corporisation, their crass hypodermic invagination, their integral erotic debauchery, their totally profligate abomination, their unveiled criminal fornication.”3 He was reduced to a heap of poorly assembled organs; he possessed neither force nor form.
He would finally emerge in 1946, with the realization that Catholicism is a form of black magic, and that “to die is to be rid of God,”4 echoing Nietzsche in proclaiming that “God is what it had always been necessary to kill in order to be.”5 To become his own origin, to govern his creative destiny, he needed to renounce both the genealogical origin of his body (parents) and the transcendental origin of his soul (God), so as to recreate himself as a “body without organs,” and in doing so mark the history of modern poetry, theater, performance, and radio. For we can hardly imagine, without Artaud, the work of Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Heiner Müller, Richard Foreman, Carmelo Bene, Valère Novarina, Karen Finlay, Diamanda Galas, Romeo Castellucci, John Zorn, Elias Merhige, Gregory Whitehead, Christof Migone, Ute Wasserman, and so many others. Such is a new form of tragedy, the ultimate implosion of Romantic subjectivity, bringing Modernity to its extreme limits.
Echoing and inverting Victor Hugo’s famed line, “Dieu est né rôtisseur” [God was a born roaster], Artaud exclaimed: “I’ll roast you on a spit, God, and I’ll baste you with a spoon of your own blood.”6 He would not cease his imprecations and vituperations against God.
Cabbage, Cane, Cross
Between the mysticism and the madness was the cane, which would reappear, transformed, in all its phantasmic force. Consider a photograph that Artaud took in October 1943 while incarcerated in the psychiatric asylum of Rodez.7 This photo depicts a cane transformed into a cross planted in the earth upon which are attached immense cabbage leaves, all draped in Artaud’s overcoat. It was inspired by the “Chanson de Roudoudou,” a childhood counting rhyme:
[Roudoudou has no wife / So he made one with his cane / He dressed it with leaves of cabbage / So here’s the wife of Roudoudou.]8 The innocence of childhood dissimulates a troubling erotic antinomy between onanism and procreation. Artaud explains in a letter addressed to his doctor, Gaston Ferdière, that this chant is based on “an antique and quite ancient adage that comes from I know not where, and which claims that for ages children have been born under cabbages.”9 But he goes much further, expressing his loathing of eroticism, which entails a double curse: that one’s earthly origin is always found in alterity (parents) and that one’s spiritual destiny is always lost in transcendence (God):
The occult tradition teaches that the cabbage is the form that nothingness takes in order to manifest itself to human consciousness […] it would appear that Satan, chance born from inexistence, used this form to compose the feminine sexual organ […] well beyond these pernicious, derogatory and depressing libidinous images, the esoteric books teach us that the cane is the will of God, and that the woman he had conjured up before him is Nature, before all else […] As for the cabbage leaves, they represent the void, that is to say nothing at all, since it is with nothing at all that God had made everything.10
The cane as magic wand, the cane as phallus, the cane as pastoral staff; the cabbage as nothingness, the cabbage as vagina, the cabbage as diabolical: yet one more symbol of the ontological antinomy—wavering between the erotic and the theological—that ruled Artaud’s last years, a birth deprived of innocence and an ineluctable Fall, the tragedy that the self is always founded upon the other. Hence this strangest stuffed cabbage, a cabbage filled with the cross, the promise of a heretical transubstantiation. It is a heartbreaking cabbage, one that expresses the infinite pathos of Artaud’s final days. This crucified cabbage is a cosmological and genealogical principle, simultaneously a disquieting emblem of immanence and a false infinity. The cabbage of despair. The cabbage as theological allegory, a strange tabernacle to protect a gnostic and blasphemous cross, the chapel of madness. The cabbage as erotic metaphor, an organic prosthesis reminding us of the fact that we are born of earth and flesh. The cabbage as the ex nihilo source of Artaud, simultaneously the void that subtends all existence and the emptiness that he always suffered at his core, precisely that which he needed to fill in order to be reborn in his own image. The cane as diabolical instrument, subverted cross, determining our disgraceful mortal destiny, indeed our fall from grace into the void. The cane and the cabbage beyond good and evil, turning the powers of the cross against itself, instruments that would permit Artaud to be done with the judgment of God. This crucified cabbage reminds us that blasphemy remains, for some, a precondition of true selfhood.
To understand this image, and indeed all of Artaud’s last works, we should be reminded of his iconoclastic stance regarding his own drawings: “The goal of all these drawn and colored figures was the exorcism of a curse, a corporeal vituperation against the obligations of spatial form, of perspective, of measure, of equilibrium, of dimension, and through this demanding vituperation a condemnation of the psychic world incrusted like a crab-louse on the physique that it incubates or succubates by alleging to have formed it.”11 Not icons or images, but amulets and exorcisms. His drawings would serve as magical tools, incantatory presences, documents of his inner condition, expressions of his desires, emblems of his life work. In fact, they were not representations but gris-gris, magical amulets against the unrepresentable pain he suffered throughout his life. Already in The Theater and Its Double, he famously wrote of theater as a form of “curative magic,” which can be understood in the context of all those subsequent magical and mystical experiments he made in the years leading to his madness: the sacred peyote ritual during his voyage to the land of the Tarahumaras Indians; his dabbling in tarot, astrology, numerology, Kabbalah, alchemy, sorcery, Tantrism, gnosticism; his studies in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Tibetan Buddhism; his fascination with the pagan sun worship of the emperor Heliogabalus; and especially his delirious obsession with Catholicism, as when he once swallowed 144 hosts at a time. He sought, always unsuccessfully, a form of magic that would be his therapy.
Force & Form
In 1924, two decades before the mysterious appearance of the crucified cabbage, and just before the publication of the First Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton appointed Artaud director of the Bureau of Surrealist Research, briefly placing him at the center of the Surrealist movement. At the same time, Artaud was involved in an exchange of letters with the editor Jacques Rivière that would be published in 1924 as Une correspondence. This tiny epistolary volume—extraordinarily profound and paradoxical—can serve as a prolegomenon to Artaud’s life work, as it variously prefigures his break with Surrealism; the theater of cruelty; the paradoxes of his madness; and the anti-poetics of his last works. In an early letter to Rivière, he defends the formal flaws of his poetry, explaining that he has the right to express himself because of his suffering: “when I can grasp a form, imperfect as it may be, I fix it, for fear of losing all thought.”12 This claim suggests the core of Artaud's counter-aesthetic, indicating both the falseness of the force/form distinction and the ontological primacy of the body in pain. In response to Rivière’s subsequent formalist critique, Artaud responds: “This scatteredness of my poems, these defects of form, this constant sagging of my thought, must be attributed not to a lack of practice, a lack of command of the instrument that I employed, a lack of intellectual development, but to a central collapse of the soul, a sort of erosion, both essential and fleeting, of thought…”13 This is an archetypically modernist aesthetic justification of shattered forms, logical equivocations, radical irrationalism, aleatory contingency, nonlinear temporality—attributes that will remain a constant throughout Artaud's work. He would come to call these modulations of his pathology the theater of cruelty.
Cruelty for Artaud has a double meaning: it is both hieratic necessity and corporeal contingency, the weight of totality and the pain of fragmentation, the agoraphobic anguish of the infinite cosmic void and the claustrophobic phobia of the tomb, the catharsis of the scream and the morbidity of suffocation. Artaud’s writing would perpetually express the body wracked by pain (nervous disorders, drug withdrawals, failed romances, editorial rejections, powerful medications, poor diagnoses, wartime privations, electroshock and insulin shock therapies, demonic spells, divine damnations), torments that caused a psychic turbulence on the verge of chaos. Hence the origins of the double bind that was to guide both Artaud's psychic and his literary existence: the simultaneous need for and impossibility of expressing an inexpressible suffering; of circumscribing the inner psychic void and the outer cosmic emptiness; of utilizing lifeless signs to express the living body. These double binds reveal nothing less than the empirical/transcendental dualism at the core of human existence. This accounts for the fact that in The Theater and Its Double, the actor’s body is variously described as subject and object, hyperbolically sensitive flesh and hieratic hieroglyph. Ultimately, Artaud would come to renounce this very dualism, repudiating both his genealogical lineage and his transcendental heritage, in order to posit himself as his own origin, as his own creative source. We call such renunciation madness.
His solution took the form of the phantasmic “body without organs”—a term made famous by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus—which Artaud announces at the end of his 1948 work for radio, To Have Done With the Judgment of God: “A body perfectly adjusted to my being, to be more and more there. What hinders me? Infinity. Solution: to close oneself in upon one’s present body with no other idea than to avoid suffering without any question, to burn all the metaphysical spectres of destiny.”14 This was, of course, the destiny that began in Dublin. The “body without organs,” was Artaud's final statement of how anatomy must be reconfigured to save the soul, to deviate from the judgments of man and God, as well as from the “limbo of a nightmare of bones and muscles”15 that was his body. Could the radio, where he makes this proclamation, really save him? Here, via recording and broadcast technology, voice is separated from body, signifier from signified, subject from socius, body from pain, life from death. Enunciated on the radio, that hyperbolically iconophobic form of art, the body without organs exists beyond all possible identifications and projections. But is this body empty or full? Does it express the utopic plenitude of Being, or is it a surreptitious microcosm of the dystopic void? Is it nothing but another corporeal emblem of the double bind that structured Artaud's entire life and work? For the very phrase “the judgment of God” is ambiguous: we can never be sure whether it is Artaud or God who is passing judgment.
Rhetoric & Repulsion
While still at the heart of the Surrealist movement, Artaud published, in the third volume of La Révolution Surréaliste (1925), a report on “The Activity of the Bureau of Surrealist Research” in which he proclaims, “Surrealism records a certain number of repulsions rather than beliefs,” and he ends the report by stating that “here a certain Faith is instilled; but let me be heard by coprophiliacs, aphasics, and in general by all those discredited in words and speech, the Pariahs of thought. I speak only for them.”16 In fact, these words were antithetical to Breton’s practice of Surrealism as the highest form of aesthetic sublimation, and Artaud was soon expelled from the movement, in part because of the decidedly desublimatory nature of his thought, and in part because of what Breton saw as a flirtation with the Catholic faith. But Artaud was already closing in upon his own solipsism, and those coprophiliacs, aphasics, and pariahs of whom he spoke would soon include himself, the last of France’s great poètes maudits, alongside Lautréamont, Baudelaire, Nerval, and Rimbaud, all of whom he would cite as his poetic genealogy.
We should remember that Artaud insisted that the otherwise chronological publication of his complete works begin with three late texts, written in 1946: Préambule; Adresse au Pape; Adresse au Dalaï-Lama (the latter two, addresses to the Pope and the Dalai Lama, being total revisions of two early Surrealist diatribes from 1925). In the incendiary “Address to the Pope,” he begins with four principles: “(1) I renounce my baptism; (2) I shit on the Christian name; (3) I jerk off on the cross of God […]; (4) It was me (and not Jesus Christ) who had been crucified at Golgotha, and this was so that I could be elevated against God and his Christ, because I am a man.”17 These vituperative texts—and I refrain from pronouncing the most offensive of them—are taken up and exacerbated within all of his last works, in even more blasphemous and heretical terms, as he proclaims Catholicism a form of black magic from which is derived the subsidiary black magic he suffered at the hands of his doctors. He would use cane and cabbage, writing and radio, as magical countermeasures.
The solipsism of the body without organs forces us to confront Artaud’s last works on their own terms, and I would stress that confrontation is, to say the least, the proper word, since his relation to his readers is agonistic. For the body without organs is a being closed off to the world, rejecting all attempts at penetration, whether by erotic seduction, logical syllogism, magical incantation, or theological imprecation. This closure entails a veritable rhetoric of repulsion based on a resistance to readability, where Artaud utilized numerous tactics to reject the reader: unmentionable blasphemy, putrid scatology, unintelligible glossolalia, hideous violence, abhorrent politics, obscene curses, unfathomable contradictions, bewildering lists, inexorable negations, disorienting syntax, unsettling non sequiturs, undefinable neologisms, uncanny repetitions—all this often enunciated from the morbid, abject, impossible point of view of the dead. We are simultaneously confronted with a new poetics (formless, forceful, overloading our consciousness to short-circuit our understanding) and a new form of magic, an apotropaic magic, a form of repulsion, a turning away of evil, a curative magic. A deflection of we the readers and of God. The term apotropaic derives from the Greek apotropaios, where apo- denotes lack, separation, departure, and tropein, tropos is a turning away. This suggests that the distinctly discursive function of our tropes, our formal figures of rhetoric, is subtended by a force that is spellbinding, enchanting, bewildering—specifically the magical side of speech. It also suggests that we are turned away from Artaud by his very texts, simultaneously fascinated and repulsed.
Recording & Radio
In electroshock therapy, the subject is wired; in radiophonic art, the subject is wireless. In revenge for the massive electroshock treatments he suffered, Artaud would create his final work, To Have Done With the Judgment of God, a radiophonic broadcast specifically crafted as a countershock against the society that suicided him. For radio, like the plague, directly attacks the nervous system of the body politic. Private cure, public shock. This work—besides being an instantiation of the theater of cruelty as well as a new form of poetry, performance, and radio—was also a form of apotropaic magic.
Artaud would risk his final efforts on the transmitting capabilities of modern media. Here, at last, was the chance to eternalize his voice. He realized the unwieldiness, indeed the futility, of the thousands upon thousands of pages of diaries he kept at Rodez and Paris, for he knew that the book is a tomb; he understood that their essence could be condensed into a single recording, which could then be played back at will, even during sleep, so that his deliria would then reenter consciousness, transformed into the crystalline Apollonian coldness of dreams. Yet he must have remembered the words he had written in his youth: “When I can grasp a form, imperfect as it may be, I fix it, for fear of losing all thought”;18 he must have realized the ontological aporia into which he was now cast: whereas radio disperses the voice with Dionysian frenzy, recording fixes it with Apollonian rigor.
Artaud suffered nightmares of his shattered and pillaged voice. Throughout his life, he had felt the overtones of his spoken words resonate between the vibratory pitch of his body and the echoes of his speech returned by the world. But now he suddenly experienced the disquietude created by the recorded voice, for this voice arrives from without, minus its usual corporeal thickness. He was increasingly anguished by his purloined voice, by his possessed body; he dreaded all those others stealing and dismembering his words. The metaphysical risk was overwhelming: his voice was destined to be everlastingly restored as the hallucinatory presence of another, or of a god. Yet he persisted.
It has often been said that Artaud’s theater of cruelty is an impossible theater. One might hypothesize that Artaud’s entire life work constitutes theater as the site of aesthetic catastrophe, epistemological failure, ontological impossibility. In a letter written less than a month before his death, soon after the moment that his radio broadcast was banned from the airways because the director of French radio believed that it would be an affront to the sensibility of the listeners, Artaud proclaims that To Have Done With the Judgment of God was “the first sketch of the Theater of Cruelty. It’s a disaster for me.”19 Needless to say, he meant that the suppression of his work was a disaster, but his claim could also be read to mean that the work itself was structurally a disaster, for indeed, according to his own logic, his every creative effort was intended to stave off the dispersion of his thought, the corrosion of his soul, the disintegration of his body. This last expression of disaster was an apotropaic gesture to stave off a cataclysmic reality.
Yet Artaud knew very well that his radio work would be a failure. Already in 1933, at the peak of his involvement with cinema—the very moment that he began to conceive of those texts that would become The Theater and Its Double—he wrote, in a short article entitled “The Premature Old Age of Cinema”: “The cinematographic world is a dead world, illusionary and truncated […] The world of cinema is a closed world, unrelated to existence, and what’s more, cinema is a world without magic.”20 Fifteen years later, just a fortnight before his death, he explains: “Where there is a machine there is always an abyss and nothingness, there is a technical interposition that deforms and annihilates what one does […] that is why I will never again touch the radio, and will henceforth devote myself exclusively to the theater as I conceive of it, a theater of blood, a theater where each representation will have brought forth something corporeally.…”21 He knew that the theater must be paroxysmic, that poetry must be incantatory, that speech must be a curse upon the rotten plague; a curse upon medically inflicted comas; a curse upon his wretched, traumatized body; a curse upon God. He insisted that the poem must emerge as a cry burst forth, seeking its own extinction.
The very last entry in Artaud’s notebooks, dated Thursday 4 March 1948, the day of his death, reads: “…the same character thus returns every morning (it’s another) to accomplish his revolting, criminal, murderous, sinister function, which is to maintain his bewitchment over me, to continue to make of me that eternal victim, etc. etc.”22 Did Artaud ultimately have done with the judgment of God, or did God prevail in the end, stealing Artaud’s voice yet again—this time not to have the spirit descend into a body wracked with pain and speaking in tongues, but rather to sever speech from body, transforming the voice into a morbid object and casting it out into the world, doomed to be forever lost in the infinite and terrifying expanses of the airwaves? Was his radiophonic magic successful? Do we gauge this success according to our own terms, by the manner in which it inspired generations of poets, artists, musicians, performers, and theater directors? Or rather in Artaud’s terms, to the extent that the work remains paradoxical and ultimately incomprehensible, the impossible expression of the body without organs, a veritable success of failure? Did this unbroadcast radiophonic work aid Artaud in fighting off the demons that tormented him, or did it go the way of the cabbage and the cane?
An early version of this essay was presented as an invited address to the Ars Acoustica Group in Galway, June 2016.
Letter to Paul Claudel, in Antonin Artaud, Cahiers d’Ivry, Vol. 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), pp. 1976–77, and Bettina Knapp, Antonin Artaud (New York: Avon Books, 1969), p. 176. The original Bachall Isu or staff of Jesus was the most sacred relic of the Irish Church, and it had hung in Christ Church until it was publicly burned in Skinner's Row by Henry VIII's archbishop of Dublin, George Brown, during his iconoclastic campaign in August 1538. The Lives of Saint Patrick provides an account of how it was given to the saint on the island of Lerins in the Mediterranean by St. Tassach. It was said to be the staff that Jesus had used to drive off Satan during his 40 days in the desert and is reputed to have been brought to Lerins by Joseph of Aremethia. It became one of the great symbols of jurisdiction of Armagh, having been brought to Ballyboghil (Baile-Bachail) around 1121 by Strongbow, and from there to the Anglo-Norman cathedral of Holy Trinity, Christ Church, inside the safer walls of Dublin. The sacred power of the Bachhall Isu was such that solemn oaths were sworn in its presence by the most powerful of Norman knights. During legal disputes and solemn controversies, the common people would swear on the staff of St. Patrick, such people believed lying while swearing upon it would cause great plagues to occur. In 1538, the staff was burnt, as it was considered a superstitious relic.
Letter of 8 Sept 1937, cited in Thomas Maader, Antonin Artaud (Paris: Plon, 1978), p. 204.
Antonin Artaud, Cahiers du retour à Paris, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 25 (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), p. 205.
Antonin Artaud, Cahiers de Rodez, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 16 (Paris: Gallimard, 1981) p. 30.
Ibid., p. 160.
Artaud, Cahiers d’Ivry, Vol. 2, p. 2276: “Je te ferai rôtir / au tournebroche / Dieu et j’arroserai / ton corps / avec une cuillère / de ton sang.”
Reproduced in Antonin Artaud, Nouveaux écrits de Rodez (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), intercalated between pages 24 and 25.
See Antonin Artaud, Lettres écrites de Rodez 1943–1944, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 10 (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), p. 297, note 3.
Letter of 18 October 1943, ibid., p. 71.
Antonin Artaud, text from February 1947, cited in Paule Thévenin and Jacques Derrida, eds., Antonin Artaud, dessins (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1987), p. 18.
Antonin Artaud, Correspondance avec Jacques Rivière, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. I, Part 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 24.
Ibid., p. 28.
Antonin Artaud, Cahiers du retour à Paris, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 23 (Paris: Gallimard, 1987), p. 27.
Antonin Artaud, Fragments d'un journal d'enfer, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 1, Part 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 117.
Antonin Artaud, L’activité du bureau de recherches surréalistes, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 1, Part 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), pp. 46–47.
Antonin Artaud, Adresse au Pape, in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 1, Part 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 13.
See note 11.
Letter to Jean Paulhan, in Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 13 (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), p. 139.
Antonin Artaud, “La vieillesse précoce du cinéma” (1933), in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), p. 104.
Letter to Paule Thévenin, 24 Feb 1948, in Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 13 (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), pp. 147–48.
Antonin Artaud, Cahiers d’Ivry, Vol. 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), p. 2328.