Artaud has primarily been known as a major collaborator with the Paris Surrealists (from 1925 to 1927), and avant-garde author of the extraordinarily eloquent if mysterious essays gathered in The Theatre and Its Double (1938), in which he very controversially called for a cataclysmic “Theater of Cruelty” that would replace centuries of representational “psychological” theater. Artaud’s vision of the theater had an influence in the 20th century only rivaled by Bertolt Brecht’s, and he is often credited with changing the entire paradigm of Western theater, prefiguring if not inspiring the Theater of the Absurd and certain kinds of performance art that reached their apogee during the 1960s. Artaud’s sometime collaborator, the actor, director, and producer Jean-Louis Barrault, described The Theatre and Its Double as “far away the most important thing that has been written about the theater in the twentieth century.”
Yet Artaud also wrote the screenplay for the first surrealist film, Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928); acted in several films, including memorable performances in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), G. W. Pabst’s Threepenny Opera (1931), and Fritz Lang’s Liliom (1934); and staged Percy Bysshe Shelley’s verse drama The Cenci (1820) in 1935 in an attempt to actualize the Theater of Cruelty. Coping with a perennial emotional instability, as well as an addiction to hard drugs dating from his teens, Artaud undertook “occult” journeys to Mexico in 1936 to participate in peyote rites with the Tarahumara Indians and to the Aran Islands in Ireland in 1937 to witness his prophesied fiery end to civilization (based on an astrological projection that missed the opening of World War II by only a few months).
All this volcanic, frenzied creativity, however, could be dwarfed in importance by Artaud’s remarkable, uncategorizable drawings, sound works, and writings that emerged between 1945 and 1948, during the end of and after his asylum confinement. This “final” Artaud, according to poet and editor Clayton Eshleman, emerged from the asylums having become “one of the great poets of all time.” Eshleman, who before his death in 2021 was the primary translator of Artaud, asserted that the author was “the real thing”—a prophetic world poet. Artaud’s contribution has been so vast that it is no wonder it has only been assimilated in slivers and shards. Even Artaud’s psychiatric confinement is a key factor of his legacy—helping inspire the critiques of psychiatry by theorists like Michel Foucault, R. D. Laing and David Cooper, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and others. The psychoanalyst (and author of a study on Artaud) Serge André has claimed that the author’s prodigious reconstitution in the asylums—surviving 51 electroshocks over an 18-month period while nevertheless ultimately shifting his creativity onto other levels—was “absolutely unprecedented.” Essays like Artaud’s coruscating, piercing tribute to the Dutch painter, “Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society” (1947), formed part of an extraordinarily lucid exposition taken up by the critical and anti-psychiatry movements.
Artaud at the end of his life wrote that his “present body” would “fly into pieces / and under ten thousand / notorious aspects / a new body / will be assembled.” This prediction of wildly fragmentary appreciation proved true—from the Beat poets who passed around tapes of To Have Done with the Judgment of God, and, in doing so, sparked parts of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956); to the circle around composers David Tudor and John Cage at Black Mountain College that led to the first “Happening” in Cage’s Theatre Piece #1 (1952) and the first English translation of Theatre and Its Double by M. C. Richards; to the explorations into language and materialism by the journal Tel Quel after 1968; to artists like Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark in Brazil exploring sculpture as movement and the dancers who invented Butoh in Japan. The exhibition of Artaud’s drawings, first at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1987 and then at New York’s MoMA in 1996–97, followed by showings in Madrid, Vienna, Marseilles, Milan, Düsseldorf, and London, opened up an entirely different dimension to the theater theorist and poète maudit who had been thrown into asylums, as did an even more thorough retrospective at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris in 2006–07, which sought to show Artaud’s enormous output in all its “surprising coherence” and “globality.”
Yet this newfound recognition of Artaud as an artist in his own right (and one of the mid-20th century’s most seminal ones), as important as that acknowledgment may be, is perhaps being surpassed by that of Artaud as a kind of sign of civilizational passage. In that respect, to hail Artaud’s position within the most experimental ranges of high modernism still underestimates his significance. Artaud marked epochal transitions as editor of the surrealist magazine La Révolution surréaliste in 1925, which proclaimed “The End of the Christian Era” and foreshadowed his titanic and harrowing struggle in the asylums—when he definitively rejected God at the close of World War II. Artaud’s most far-reaching assaults on representation and repression are in these “final” texts after his release from Rodez asylum in May 1946, in his elaboration of what his biographer and translator Stephen Barber dubs his “corporeal poetry,” and in his project for transformation of the human anatomy. It is in these last writings that Artaud announces his goal of a “true organic and physical transformation of the human body”—and sometimes claims, as in a December 1947 notebook, to “have made / a body.”
Artaud’s undertaking of a “true body,” a “body without organs,” sounds far less “mad” in these early decades of the 21st century than it did in 1948. In what has been called our “post-biological era,” it is increasingly difficult to define embodiment as something confined by physical skin—all sorts of implants alter or monitor bodily functions, or act as prostheses. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have used stem cells to create a synthetic embryo complete with brain and heartbeat, suggesting a dawning era of ectogenesis that joins what is already an ever-expanding international labor market in surrogacy and assisted reproduction, not to mention the widespread accessibility of various forms of elective bodily modification. This is only part of the transformation that led the late philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy to maintain that “a civilization is disappearing,” arguing that we are witnessing a “change of the same magnitude as the shift from antiquity to the middle ages.” Artaud’s obsession with an autochthonic “present body” is integral to his furious assault on all forms of representation—and is arguably only more relevant now that Google Earth has mapped the entire globe and our lives have become increasingly enmeshed in various algorithmic and digital infrastructures. Artaud was a pioneer, as early as 1925, in writing about conflict on “virtual” planes of reality, what he at one time termed the “life plane.” Current artists in virtual/augmented reality or video installations that evoke the navigation of a “virtual self” are thus arguably another line of Artaud’s legacy.
Artaud’s standing as a kind of epochal soothsayer is apparently confirmed by a spate of recent translations. Some of these continue and complete the record Eshleman began with his Artaud translations dating from the early 1970s and carried out over the ensuing decades (Stephen Barber has edited and shaped a series of Eshleman’s last translations for DIAPHANES press). These range from Artaud’s late reflections on his experiences participating in peyote rites with the Tarahumara Indians, his writings on his drawings, the texts of his three radio broadcasts, and Eshleman’s version of Artaud’s key work “Return of Artaud, the Mômo,” written immediately after his release from Rodez and return to Paris. Barber initiated the series in 2019 with his own translation of Artaud 1937 Apocalypse: Letters from Ireland, a collection of letters and materials from Artaud’s fateful trek to the Aran Islands, via Cobh, Galway, and Dublin, during which a penniless, increasingly disoriented Artaud expected to witness the fiery conflagration of the world he had predicted in The New Revelations of Being (1937). Artaud was expelled from Ireland, arriving in the port of Le Havre straitjacketed, after which he began his long peregrination in French mental hospitals.
This series parallels literary polymath and experimental filmmaker Peter Valente’s planned trajectory of translations from Infinity Land Press—of Artaud’s The New Revelations of Being, with other material and letters; the texts of Artaud’s astounding performance/reading at Vieux-Colombier in Paris on January 13, 1947; and another translation of Artaud’s multifarious texts on the Tarahumara ceremonies. On another track, Bloomsbury is publishing a new translation of Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double, by theater scholar Mark Taylor-Batty of the University of Leeds, in early 2024, with the rationale that Artaud’s language and concepts in the book can be better understood in terms of what we now know about his life and writings. Batty’s planned series of further translations focuses more on Artaud’s early theater writings in the 1920s and his 1935 production of Shelley’s The Cenci, but also on a thorough, interdisciplinary examination of Artaud’s lifelong struggle with the medical/psychiatric establishment. Also scheduled for publication in 2024 is the translation by theorist and philosopher Joel White, for the first time in their entirety in English, of the various addresses, lectures, and articles Artaud composed in Mexico City before he trekked up the Sierra Tarahumara, also including recently found articles by Laurine Rousselet from Artaud’s time in Havana (the author having passed through Haiti and Cuba on his way); these “revolutionary messages” contain some of the clearest expositions of his ideas at the time.
Two of these new translations from Infinity Land, A Sinister Assassin: Antonin Artaud’s Last Writings, Ivry-sur-Seine, September 1947 to March 1948 by Barber and The True Story of Jesus-Christ: Three Notebooks from Ivry (August 1947) by Valente, derive from Artaud’s remarkable “comeback” and return to Paris, at least its far-flung suburb in the vicinity of Ivry-sur-Seine—where, in stark contrast to his psychiatric confinements, Artaud was ensconced in a clinic for which he had keys that let him come and go as he pleased. It is a virtue of Barber’s and Valente’s translations of these most crucial statements that they take Artaud at his word. Unlike some of the curators of Artaud exhibitions, who cite psychiatric nomenclature as if it had not been severely challenged by critical and anti-psychiatry movements for several decades already (not least quite brilliantly by Artaud himself), Barber and Valente follow, consciously or not, a basic anti-psychiatry position, taking seriously the context Artaud is establishing and the jangly, intense fluctuation of Artaud’s “corporeal poetry.” In texts included in A Sinister Assassin, Artaud writes,
Reality itself has not yet come into existence because the true organs of the human body have still not yet been created nor positioned into place.
The theatre of cruelty was created in order to complete that putting into place and to accomplish—through a new dance of the human body—a crushing of this world of microbes which is nothing but a coagulated abyss.
The theatre of cruelty is intended to make eyelids dance in intimacy with elbows, with kneecaps, with femurs, and with toes and you are now going to see all that.
Artaud saw his drawings as animated sketches of a “body without organs,”
which are going to generate
their own apocalypse
because they’ve said too much
to be born
and too much in being born
not to be reborn
and to take on their body
Frequently, there is a cascade of vituperation, which revolves around his renewed “theater of cruelty”:
The theatre and the sung-out dance,
are the theatre of furious revolts
emerging from the human body’s misery
to confront the problems which it cannot enter into
or of which the passive,
exceeds that body.
Barber bookends his collection with Artaud’s very last letters and interviews with journalists from Combat and Le Figaro, while the translations are punctuated by reproductions of Artaud’s notebook pages, in the Infinity Land Press edition photographs (usually aerial) by Karolina Urbaniak of what’s left of the Ivry-sur-Seine clinic grounds, and sculptural artworks of crucified figures by Martin Bladh that do not so much “illustrate” the book as make it a combustible objet d’art in the surrealist tradition. These translations, including the complete translation of fragments from the last six months of Artaud’s life that were published by the literary magazine 84 in June 1948, form a more complete record in English, at long last, of this “final” Artaud. This project, and this affect, is left for the reader to decide, but for Artaud, “Yes magic exists / In fact / it’s all that exists.”
In The True Story of Jesus-Christ, Valente translates three notebooks from August 1947 that emerged from Artaud’s lifelong preoccupation with Christ. Artaud’s identification with the experience of the crucifixion appears in his earliest writings in the 1920s, and arguably becomes the fulcrum of his survival and reformation in the asylums. At the end of his life, Artaud summons this passionate fixation with an apocalyptic ferocity set off with black humor. As Valente points out in his introduction, Artaud “is both a martyr and a furious christ who does not believe in God.” Artaud insisted that it was he who was crucified, not the historical Jesus the impostor:
[The world] has a terrible and vertiginous history which
I will speak about on the day of the Last Judgment,
Because I am the unknown executed
in Golgotha on the order of the priests and
I am not Christ but
nobody and I have a small
account to settle publicly
with all the priests of all time.
Artaud argues further:
you could endure
of the catastrophe
but the authentic repetition
of the real torments
through which the body passed
in the midst of
catastrophe: there is no man
in the world
who could bear it.
In this cosmic scam, “the present body,” with its concatenation of organs, “was only made to capture, / in the invisible, / Arto [a pun on the author’s name] of the unpredictable / forces.” What Artaud sometimes terms his transformed “pure body” substitutes for the Christ of the priests, since even Christ cannot approximate the suffering Artaud has endured.
The True Story of Jesus-Christ intercalates the printed texts with reproductions of Artaud’s notebook pages, replicating how he wanted his presentation to appear—with its blurring and slashing of word/image, one nearly indecipherably turning into the other. Despite his invention of a “body without organs,” his wager with infinity, Artaud realized that he was going to die (despite not being told of his doctor’s diagnosis of rectal cancer), so he was working furiously, right up to his interview with Le Figaro within days of his death, when he felt he was completing his work of destruction: “I do not want to suppose anything, admit anything, enter into anything, discuss anything …”
In the voluminous literature surrounding Artaud, it is not always clearly recognized that his creation of a “new body,” a new anatomy and universe, is contingent on the utter destruction of the current one. So, it is a true scholarly service that Valente, in the essays collected in his new book Obliteration of the World: A Guide to the Occult Belief System of Antonin Artaud, attempts to delineate in some detail Artaud’s rationale, obviously of a different and far more chiliastic nature than any other advocacy of the supersession of the past articulated by the 20th-century avant-garde. In sketching out Artaud’s culminating vision, Valente summons Hermetic and magickal traditions: the Kabbalah, the work of Aleister Crowley, Western interpretations of Hinduism. This is a highly risky maneuver given that Artaud, by the 1930s, was completely immersed in various mystical literatures and practices, especially alchemy.
At the end of his life, though, Artaud hissed his contempt toward these traditions: “The extreme point of mysticism, / I hold it now in the real and in my body, / like a toilet broom.” Maintaining that “[t]he occult is born out of laziness,” Artaud seemed to totally reject anything to do with the “spirit.” This is complicated by the fact that he had already, in the 1930s, made fun of words like “alchemical” and “metaphysical,” and would often use terms from Hermetic disciplines with a twist that belied their origins. Similarly, in the last year and a half of his life, Artaud referred to the “Great Work,” but not in the systemic sense one would find in alchemical texts or The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
In one of his most valuable essays, “Artaud’s Sacred Triad: A Qabalistic Analysis of a Certain Passage in a Letter to André Breton,” Valente acknowledges the delicate line he is walking. Granting that the “late” Artaud “was fully aware and often skeptical, if not furious, about the many aspects of a hermetic tradition that included the Tarot, Qabalah, and Eastern mysticism,” Valente argues nevertheless that pragmatic prognostications such as Crowley’s version of the Kabbalah are compatible with Artaud’s thinking. As Crowley wrote: “We do not believe in any supernatural explanations, but insist that this source may be reached by the following out of definite rules, the degree of success depending upon the capacity of the seeker, and not upon the favour of any Divine Being.” Just as the “final” Artaud measures any phenomenon in relation to the body, Crowley posits the body’s centrality and the indissoluble connection of spirit with sexuality. For Valente, Artaud’s version of the annihilation of the world is linked to the sexual inversion of Kundalini yoga and similar practices of Crowley’s Thelemic order that are “reverses [of] the act of creation.” Despite such remarkable parallels, this assimilation of Artaud’s “new body” to notions of an immutable soul neglects other contemporary readings that interpret it as a brilliant prefiguration of contemporary ideas about the “virtual” body.
Readings of Artaud have typically gyrated between seeing mere fragmentation, a splattering of the “unconscious,” and asserting an immense coherence in line with the beliefs of “traditional” societies or forms of esoteric practice. Both approaches can be amply justified by reference to his diverse corpus, but both also risk underselling his originality. Having for such a long time been accessible only in chronologically confusing fragments, these translations have begun to flesh out in a definitive way Artaud’s conception of a “new body,” at long last approaching a final testament, if not a final accounting.
Jay Murphy is the author of New Media and the Artaud Effect (2021) and Artaud’s Metamorphosis: From Hieroglyphs to Bodies Without Organs (2016), and the editor of For Palestine (1993). He has contributed to CTheory, Third Text, Art Journal, Deleuze Studies, Parallax, Culture Machine, Frieze, MAP, Afterimage, Parkett, Art in America, and Metropolis, among other publications.