Life matters in Antonin Artaud’s writings

By | July 22, 2021

Guest post by Joeri Visser

For more than ten years, the writings of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) have continued to fascinate me. Not only his life and his writings, but also the reactions to which they give rise. In 1977, his psychiatrist Jacques Latrémolière claimed that “[i]n thirty or fifty years I’m sure no one will speak of him.” And yet, thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot and Gilles Deleuze praised his works for their approach to language, body and life. My first experience with Artaud’s works evoked mixed feelings: at a first reading, I found his writings (I read a letter from 1946) rather incoherent, obscure and irrelevant, but at a second reading, I perceived that something was going on in his use of language. Latrémolière would claim that “[a]ll the words that he invented make no sense – they add nothing to civilization, nothing” and he contends that students who eventually read his works in some specialized fields of the university, waste their time. Ten years ago, I decided to waste my time and see what was going on in these writings of Artaud. After several years of academic research, I am not sure if I have understood Artaud or his writings, but I know for sure that something is going on in his writings that is still relevant for the reader today. Antonin Artaud and the Healing Practices of Language is the outcome of my exploration and an invitation to Artaud’s (future) readers to further unfold the later writings of Artaud where life matters.    

The life of Artaud himself has been tormented by physical and mental illnesses, by the inexorability of the avant-gardists and modern times but most of all by language. Already in the early twenties, Artaud tries to express his physical and mental suffering, but perceives, in describing his feelings, the obstructive and sick making role of language. Language turns him into a patient, a madman, a subject – an ‘I’ – that is not as coherent as language suggests; in other words, language speaks through him rather than that he speaks through language.

After his failed career as a poet (his first poems are refused for publication), a playwright (the first staging of his renewing “The Theater of Cruelty” failed) and a scenarist (his film The Seashell and the Clergyman was badly received), Artaud travels to Mexico where he hopes to find an organic culture in which one engages with hitherto unexplored forces of the body (a translation of the writings from this period will be published by Bloomsbury in September 2022. This organic culture is thus a culture of absolute immanence where the mind is intricately related to the body. Putting it simply: in this organic culture, the mind is the expression of the body. His Mexican experiences do not only change his behavior, but after his return, Artaud’s writings also develop from messianistic, occult and Kabbalistic texts to more mystical and religious texts that are traversed by dramatized complaints of his various internments, demands for drugs and critiques to, following his words, an advanced civilization.

During the nine years of his various internments, Artaud focuses more and more sustainably on language. Creatively playing with language, he twists, torments and inflicts a torsion upon words in order to express the forces of life and matter, or what he calls ‘the true nature of evil.’ It thus seems that a sustainable play with language also brings about the vitality of life. It is in this sense that language can be turned into a healing practice for those suffering by this same language that structures our thinking. In other words, language has the potency to subjugate us, but also gives us the possibility to bring about life through a creative and material play with it.

Antonin Artaud and the Healing Practices of Language mainly focuses on Artaud’s later writings in which the constitutive role of an affirmative language is investigated. Asserting that there are still active forces at work in Artaud’s writings, a revaluation of his later works is interesting, healing and even necessary when we consider the subjugating structures that are still at work in our current society (think alone of mental health care). In this new materialist reading of Artaud’s later writings, I discuss the vital forces with which Artaud’s language engages, the form of this language and the significance of this language. Focusing on a postsecular religion of immanence – the word ‘religion’ is etymologically understood as ‘reconnecting’ or ‘rereading’ – that reconnects man to the vital forces of his body, matter and life, I contend that Artaud’s later writings engage with the ungraspable forces of life. This life is modelled, subjugated and codified by a language that permits communication from which the functioning of society is regulated. At the same time, this language also restricts the infinite capabilities of the singularities of our bodies, expressions and desires. Following Artaud’s later writings, the reader perceives how life matters in writing through a creative play with and within language.

Have I wasted my time? Who knows? However it may be, some of Artaud’s writings remain ungraspable, vibrating and full of potency to me; they still invite me to further explore what is going on in the language of these works. And one thing is for sure, in thirty or fifty years, we will still speak of Artaud!  

Antonin Artaud and the Healing Practices of Language cover image

Joeri Visser is Chairman of the French Department in secondary education at a school near Rotterdam. He has been a lecturer at Utrecht University where he also obtained a PhD on Artaud in 2019. He has written on French philosophy and literature, and published translations of articles from Michel Serres.

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