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Apocalypse Maintenant: Artaud’s Anti-Everything

By Steve Finbow.

Antonin Artaud, Artaud 1937 Apocalypse, translated by Stephen Barber (Infinity Land Press, 2018).

“Just tell them that I shit on the republic, on democracy, on socialism, on communism, on Marxism, on idealism, on materialism — whether it’s dialectical materialism or not, because I shit on dialectics too, and I’m going to give you further proof of that.”

These letters from Ireland, sent to various recipients in France between 14 August and 21 September 1937, are incendiary epistles detailing Antonin Artaud’s mental, physical and economic breakdown while synchronously foreseeing and foretelling the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust. In The New Revelations of Being, Artaud’s manifesto published two months before his fateful journey, he wrote, “I have felt the Void for a long time now, but for all that time, I have refused to throw myself into the Void.” Ireland would be that void, would be the topography of his own flesh, his own mind. In The New Gods, Emil Cioran could be explaining Artaud’s revelations, “Always to have lived with the nostalgia to coincide with something, but not really knowing with what … It is easy to shift from unbelief to belief, or conversely. But what is there to convert to, and what is there to abjure, in a state of chronic lucidity? Lacking substance, it offers no content that can be disclaimed; it is empty, and one does not disclaim the void: lucidity is the negative equivalent of ecstasy,” and these diatribal dispatches from the edge of the Old World tremor with faith and doubt, pulse with spirit and flesh, and oscillate with language and silence.

Artaud’s problems were manifold but his main argument was with the world and being in the world – with reality – whatever that is and, therefore, with language. Artaud goes beyond Rimbaud’s claim that “Je est un autre” (letter to Paul Demeny of 15 May 1871) by stating “I, Antonin Artaud, am my son, my father, my mother, and myself.” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue that this is how Artaud viewed the world, “The schizo has his own system of co-ordinates for situating himself at his disposal, because, first of all, he has at his disposal his very own recording code, which does not coincide with the social code, or coincides with it only in order to parody it. The code of delirium or of desire proves to have an extraordinary fluidity. It might be said that the schizophrenic passes from one code to the other, that he deliberately scrambles all the codes, by quickly shifting from one to another, according to the questions asked him, never giving the same explanation from one day to the next, never invoking the same genealogy, never recording the same event in the same way” (Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). These letters embody this apocalyptic vision – Artaud’s anti-language is his own recording code, a secret language that reveals everything. His magic spells are to protect and to harm, their surfaces burned with cigarettes to injure and yet to purify. Artaud’s behaviour was contrary to the prevailing social code – he never paid his bills, he dressed like a seer in the costume of a tramp, he got into fights, he was finally deported from Ireland and locked in the ship’s cabin after brawling with the crew. Artaud’s mind constantly contradicted itself until it too became a void.

From Galway on 5 September 1937, Artaud included a magic spell in a letter to André Breton and proclaimed, “You need to listen to the Pagan Truth. There is no God, but gods still exist. At the summit of the gods’ Hierarchy there’s the greatest God that Plato speaks about, who like everything else that exists is Nature’s victim. That greatest God isn’t a criminal, but a Powerless One, like Us. It’s Nature that is criminal – and what is Nature exactly? In itself, it’s Nothingness. It is that Nothingness that Lao-Tzu talks about, but even so, Life itself issues from that Nothingness,” Artaud’s scrambling of the codes of faith and existence read like a schizo-amalgamation of his contemporaries – H.P. Lovecraft (The Great Old Ones) and the Kyoto School philosophers Kitaro Nishida and Hajime Tanabe’s theories of absolute nothingness. Artaud’s letters show, in Nishida’s words, an “identity of the absolute contradiction”. But Artaud goes beyond the “assault on rationality” and śūnyatā and wu/mu by insisting that his visions aren’t hallucinations, that demons really exist, that his apocalyptic hypothesis is more than that, “All of this isn’t a theory – it’s the Truth. It’s the Truth as I’ve seen it and that I can translate, in as much as these matters can be translated. Whoever doesn’t want to understand this Truth, I’m going to smash them in the face this time. Because this Truth is going to have to be imposed by force.”

[Artaud 1937 Apocalypse book illustrations. Artwork by Martin Bladh]

In his afterword Stephen Barber explains that, “After being detained on his arrival in Le Havre (from Ireland) on 30 September, he was taken to a lunatic asylum near the city of Rouen, and from there, on to numerous other asylums in different parts of France, over a period of nine years which encompassed the entirety of the Second World War”. Artaud’s apocalypse was a culmination of his lifelong fight against the Law, the Law of language, of cinema, of theatre, of progenitors, of family, of surrealism, of the body and of the mind. And it is Jacques Lacan (once one of Artaud’s detested psychiatrists) who we can turn to for a summation of everything Artaud detested, “This law, then, is revealed clearly enough as identical with an order of language. For without kinship nominations, no power is capable of instituting the order of preferences and taboos that bind and weave the yarn of lineage through succeeding generations” (Écrits: A Selection). Artaud had already prepared his response in September 1947, “psychiatry is nothing but a slump of gorillas, themselves obsessed and suffering from mania of persecution and which, to relieve the most appalling states of anxiety and suffocation of humans, have only a ridiculous terminology, worthy product of their atrophied brains.” For Artaud, “The Force of Nature is the Law, and that Law is the Nature of things which in all cases makes the Law, whether you accept or reject the Law. And it’s We, too, who made the Law and are the Law – whether the officials and accomplices of the Law want it or not.”

[Galway Bay, Ireland. Photo by Karolina Urbaniak]

Artaud 1937 Apocalypse is published to mark the end of copyright on Artaud’s work. The translation by Stephen Barber captures the intensity of Artaud’s language and thought, his afterword provides the context and history of Artaud’s journey and the provenance of the letters. As with their other publications, Infinity Land Press has produced a beautiful book, which includes artworks by Martin Bladh and photographs by Karolina Urbaniak. The collages show Artaud’s fractured sanity and his mental and physical disintegration, while the powerful landscapes of Inishmore, part of the Aran Islands off Ireland’s western coast, portray the sublime turmoil of Artaud’s mind in a dark geography of revelation. Artaud wrote that, “I made my debut in literature by writing books in order to say that I could write nothing at all. My thoughts, when I had something to say or write, were that which was furthest from me. I never had any ideas, and two short books, each seventy pages long, are about this profound, inveterate, endemic absence of any idea. These books are l’Ombilic des limbes and le Pèse-nerfs.” And commenting on this assertion, Jacques Derrida could, again, be quoting the Kyoto School, “It is the consciousness of nothing, upon which all consciousness of something enriches itself, takes on meaning and shape” (Writing and Difference).

[Dún Aonghasa stones, Inishmore, Aran Islands. Photo by Karolina Urbaniak]

With the expiration of copyright on Artaud’s work and the subsequent event of Artaud 1937 Apocalypse, one is to hope that more of Artaud’s writings are unveiled and translated into English. The majority of his works published in the UK – notably the four-volumes of the Collected Works published by John Calder in the 1970s – are out of print, as are biographies and critical texts, Stephen Barber’s Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs, Artaud: The Screaming Body and Artaud: Terminal Curses being notable exceptions. To mark the 70th anniversary of Artaud’s death and to launch Artaud 1937 Apocalypse, Stephen Barber will give a talk on the last decade of Artaud’s life, from the date of the Ireland letters, through the asylum years to freedom and his death from rectal cancer. “My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud” is at the Whitechapel Gallery’s Zilkha Auditorium at 7pm on 31 May 2018. In ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now’, Derrida claims, “Literature belongs to this nuclear epoch, that of the crisis and of nuclear criticism, at least if we mean by this the historical and ahistorical horizon of an absolute self-destructibility without apocalypse, without revelation of its own truth, without absolute knowledge.” These letters from Ireland with their magic spells (atomic magic numbers) show a writer of nothingness, of anti-articulation, proclaiming a personal apocalypse that will engulf the planet, a prophesying of the Truth of self and being, a revelation of Artaud’s own absolute knowledge, “The Truth, dear Anne – and you really have to let this inside your head – is that in 1 year’s time, and happening simultaneously at that time, everything you see and everything that constitutes your life in that world, WILL HAVE BLOWN APART.”

Steve Finbow’s fiction includes Balzac of the Badlands (Future Fiction London, 2009), Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom (Grievous Jones Press, 2011), Nothing Matters (Snubnose Press, 2012) and Down Among the Dead (Number Thirteen Press, 2014). His biography of Allen Ginsberg in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series was published in 2011. His other works include Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) and Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books, 2017). He is currently writing a book on Nietzsche and attempting to finish a novel set in Tokyo.




First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 19th, 2018.