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a frightful disease of the mind: Sylvère Lotringer’s Mad Like Artaud reviewed

By Tristan Burke.


Sylvère Lotringer, Mad Like Artaud (Semiotexte, 2015)

There is a text by Antonin Artaud in 1925’s The Nerve Meter, entitled ‘Here is someone…’. In it, he writes:

I study myself microscopically. I put my finger on the exact place of the fault, the unadmitted sliding. For the mind is more reptilian than even you, Gentlemen. It slips away like snakes, it slips away until it affects our tongues, I mean it leaves them hanging.

I’m the man who’s best felt the astounding disorder of his language in its relation to his thought. I am the man who has best charted his inmost self, his most imperceptible slitherings. Really, I lose myself in my thought the way one dreams, the way one suddenly returns to his thought. I am the man who knows the innermost recesses of loss.

This is a bold and a curious statement in relation to what we know of Artaud’s madness, because it insists on Artaud’s self-knowledge. As he puts it earlier in the same text, ‘I know myself because I’m there, I’m there at Antonin Artaud’. In this statement, Artaud claims that the inadequacy of language to represent his thought is the nature of his madness, ‘an astounding disorder’. In one of the very earliest texts, the Correspondence with Jacques Rivière (1923-24, published 1972) he defines this mismatch between thought and language as the very root of his mental illness: ‘I suffer from a frightful disease of the mind. My thought abandons me at all stages. From the simple act of thinking to the external act of its materialization in words’. By The Nerve Meter, however, it seems that Artaud’s own understanding of his own ‘disease’ constitutes not sickness, but a sort of health. It is only Artaud who has self-knowledge because he is Artaud, and to lose oneself, to slip into what we might call madness has become identical with returning to sanity, to dream is to return to thought. To have self-knowledge, to be secure in one’s own sense of subjectivity comes from a recognition of the loss of subjectivity. This place called Antonin Artaud, for Artaud, is the site where the contradictions and paradoxes of madness and sanity can be held secure.

Sanity, then derives from recognition of madness, which according to Artaud is the slippage of language in relationship to thought. For Artaud then, the truly mad must be those who believe they can express thought rationally, for whom a thought and the words that represent the thought cohere. These people are particularly disgusting to Artaud. In another section of The Nerve Meter, ‘All writing is pigshit…’, he states, ‘People who leave the obscure and try to define whatever it is that goes on in their heads, are pigs’. And yet, these people only try. The reason seems to be, that if madness is located in the sliding of language in relationship to thought, then by a sort of mad leap, madness slides away from those with self-knowledge of their madness onto those who claim rationality and sanity.

This is the argument of one of Artaud’s most celebrated later texts, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society (1947): ‘Faced with Van Gogh’s lucidity, always active, psychiatry becomes nothing but a den of gorillas, so obsessed and persecuted that it can only use a ridiculous terminology to palliate the most frightful anxiety and human suffocation // worthy product of their warped minds. Indeed there is not a psychiatrist who is not a notorious erotomaniac’.

Throughout Artaud’s career as a writer, he insists on the notion that in trying to apprehend thought, and particularly the thought of mad people, rationally, madness comes to be attached to the very people who claim understanding. According to Artaud, madness spreads, it’s contagious to the very people who surround it. And between the publication of these early texts, and the later texts, in 1937, Artaud became in Sylvère Lotringer’s words, ‘ a manic lunatic, who spouted mystical writings by Saint Jerome and invoked the magical powers of the universe to protect himself’. Lotringer’s book, Mad Like Artaud, speaks to the way that Artaud’s madness spreads. It discusses the way in which Artaud, during his own lifetime and his complex cultural legacy, has infected those around him, with the very same madness that Artaud himself claimed he was not touched by.

Mad Like Artaud was originally published in French as Fous d’Artaud in 2003, and appears in English now in an excellent translation by the theatre director Joanna Spinks, in a handsome volume from the small critical theory publisher Univocal. Univocal have made a speciality of publishing slightly obscure theory texts in white, letterpress printed covers with hypnotic geometrical designs that have a tendency to get terribly scuffed-up when you carry them round in your bag. Lotringer’s book is a heterogeneous affair, consisting of a piece of ‘Introfiction’, a sort of critical essay gone terribly, terribly wrong that deals with Artaud’s life and work, interviews with two of Artaud’s psychiatrists – Jacques Latrémolière and Gaston Ferdière, each accompanied by short essays, an interview with Artaud’s literary executor and companion Paule Thévenin, and a ‘fictional interview with Anton Artaud’. Around all of these sections circulate questions about the nature of Artaud’s madness and the contagion that Lotringer suggests comes with it: the relationship between Artaud and the times he lived in, the relationship between madness and psychiatry and the relationship between madness and artistic creation.

The structure of the book though becomes something like one of Artaud’s own texts, where different voices fade in and out of the text with no attributions, with no clear way of establishing just who is speaking at each moment. Lotringer’s text is not quite as mad as Artaud’s in this respect. Most of the time there is a clear idea of who is speaking, marked in bold letters in the margin. The fading and shifting of voices in Artaud resembles the random twisting of a radio dial, and it is surely no coincidence that his final major work, To Have Done With the Judgement of God is a radio play, one where different voices slide in and out of focus, until Artaud’s madness is no longer distinguishable from the madness of people we might presume are doctors:

3.- You are saying some very bizarre things, Mr. Artaud.
4.- Yes, I am saying something bizarre, that contrary to everything we have been led to believe, the pre-Columbian Indians were a strangely civilized people and that in fact they knew a form of civilization based exclusively on the principle of cruelty.
5.- And do you know precisely what is meant by cruelty?
6.- Offhand, no, I don’t.
7.- Cruelty means eradicating by means of blood and until blood flows, god, the bestial accident of unconscious human animality, wherever one can find it.

Similarly in Lotringer’s interview with Latrémolière, there is the same comparison with the radio and the same suggestion of a more generalised madness:

SL: [Artaud] no longer knew what belonged to him and what didn’t. As if we had the radio plugged into our head telling us what to think, like the weather forecast does in the morning.

JL: Yes.

SL: Telling us who we are.

JL: That’s sort of what he felt, yes. It’s called a hallucination.

SL: Sure. But aren’t people hallucinating just a tiny bit these days?

Here, whilst Latrémolière remains perfectly rational, Lotringer seems to be suggesting that Artaud’s hallucinations emanate from him to determine how the world is seen, ‘What can we do if dreams have become reality and reality has become a nightmare?’, Lotringer asks elsewhere in the same interview. He seems to slightly overstate the ways in which Artaud’s madness comes to shape the rest of the world however, rather than the dialectical approach that he suggests here. After all, is Artaud’s use of radio such a special case? He may push it to the most terrifying extremes, but aren’t dissolutions of subjectivity modelled on the radio already well present in literature by the time that Artaud writes, such as in Eliot’s The Waste Land or Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz? Perhaps the focus on Artaud as the emanation of all madness in the world accunts for some of the excessively biographical readings that Lotringer can fall into. Having suggested elsewhere that Artaud’s madness is in a dialectical relationship with the world around him, Lotringer occasionally suggests that Artaud’s work can be interpreted in a fairly crude biographical manner: ‘The various kinds of pain that Artaud was illustrating in his drawing were the pains we was suffering from’, he writes at one point.

Similarly, in ‘Introfiction’ at the beginning of the book, all the horrors of National Socialism seem to stem from Artaud himself, as though history is nothing but Artaud’s biography. Thus Lotringer’s account shifts from the beliefs that Artaud and those around him possessed that he somehow was martyred by the psychiatric profession, to placing Artaud at the very centre of history, as a true martyr. Within a few pages Lotringer’s view shifts from stating that ‘it’s undeniable that Artaud suffered; but no, he also had to be crucified, and there had to be a Judas that could be held responsible. Artaud’s paranoia, his mystical delusions and the real grief of the “confined poet” took care of the rest’, to ‘Artaud wasn’t crazy. He was a Jew. Like Jesus Christ’. What comes between these is a discussion of Artaud’s Jewishness which is ventriloquised through Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s notorious, racist pamphlet Trifles for a Massacre. Lotringer claims, somewhat disturbingly, that ‘Anti-Semitic obsessions can be particularly useful, and I am going to make use of them myself, to demonstrate some truths that Artaud preferred to keep under wraps’. These truths take the form of a litany of anti-Semitic abuse against Artaud, which is blended with unattributed quotations from both Céline and Artaud’s work:

‘“Castrated from direct emotion” as he was, Artaud… All Jews are… . Not like those cuckold idiot Aryans, following the rhythms of the natural elements – at least those who aren’t brain damaged from alcohol abuse…. Incapable of any immediate, spontaneous reaction, those Jews…. It’s all in their heads, even migraines…. And the endless snivelling of Simone Weil … and what about poor me and my headaches … “these were no illusory troubles … skull and temples both in such a dreadful state.”’

This continues for several pages, and I think it’s important to stress that Lotringer marks this as fiction, but just what truths is it exposing? He seems to be suggesting that Artaud’s oeuvre stems just as much from the pervading anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 40s as from his madness or the treatments of it, that Artaud had internalised this anti-Semitism and in the intersection of Céline and Artaud’s writing, one can see in Artaud’s madness, disavowed anti-Semitism turn back on itself. Lotringer directly quotes Céline’s ranting, ‘They’re crucifiers. Well that’s all there is to say about the Jews, I think’, before adding, ‘Ah, well – you can be as anticlerical as you want, but you can’t spit on the one valuable thing the Church ever invented: anti-Semitism’. Artaud, according to Lotringer, turns on himself in some space between this anti-Semitism, his wavering Christianity and his Jewishness. He was, ‘a non-Christian Jew … a non-Jewish Christian … a non-Jewish Jew … a non-Christian Christian’. In this context he does become somehow reminiscent of Christ, though I’m less sure than Lotringer whether Artaud’s madness takes on the cosmic importance of Christ, whether Artaud’s utterances infect the world with madness and also redeem it. Could it not be that Artaud’s work is another example of that writing of the horrors of Nazism that Adorno writes of, when he writes that, ‘perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream’.

Indeed, Lotringer is keen to stress the similarities between Artaud’s experiences in psychiatric hospitals in the Occupied Zone with the experiences of being in one of the death camps. He was systematically starved and denied medical assistance, ‘he experienced [the camps] not as a Jew, but as a madman. The difference is not negligible, but it’s not as insignificant as one might think at first glance’. On entering hospitals like that which Artaud was interned, ‘the patients’ heads were completely shaved, and usually their pubic hair as well; they were then scrubbed down, and dressed in a sort of thick canvas sack […] they could be seen turning in circles in the courtyard’. Lotringer quotes a doctor who experienced these conditions:

Major weight loss, with or without recurrences of latent tuberculosis, infections setting off violent attacks of consumption raging through weakened organisms’ impaired immune systems; cases of major edema, where you could see the skeletal bodies bloat up with water and then ‘emptying’ themselves through incredible bouts of diarrhea. When we made out morning ‘inspections’ the dormitories stunk of corpses.

Artaud was starved and lost all his teeth, and Lotringer states that, ‘The silence of critics regarding this period of acute hunger is far more troubling than, say, misplaced controversies’ about the treatment that Artaud underwent when he was better cared for. These controversies rage around the treatment Artaud experienced at the Rodez asylum where Latrémolière and Ferdière worked, which was in the comparatively safe and less punitive so-called Free Zone, where the Vichy Government had authority. Here, Artaud was restored to physical health before undergoing several long series of what is now known electroconvulsive therapy, at the time a cutting edge medical technique.

So on the one hand, Artaud’s madness and his writings are shown to be like the madness, horror and cruelty of the world in which he grew up and suffered, though Lotringer goes further and suggests that Artaud’s madness is also, somehow, a cause of this:

Hadn’t Artaud foreseen in “The Theatre and the Plague” that the disease could be spread remotely and not merely by simple contact? And he wasn’t only speaking about the radio that Hitler used to fanaticise crowds. After all, what were all Artaud’s deliriums – like those dreams of the viceroy of Sardinia – if not the emanations of that same plague; the liberation of images of a spiritual sickness discharging itself into the world with epidemic force?

On the other hand, Lotringer speaks of the way Artaud’s madness is contagious at a much closer, interpersonal level, and this tends to be what the interviews in the book speak to. It even seems to be the method through which Lotringer reveals the geo-political implications of Artaud’s madness. One might say he is ventriloquizing, imitating Artaud’s madness here, but when one sees how easily it seems to spread in the interviews, then it is as though Lotringer’s career working on Artaud’s texts (and Céline’s and Weil’s) has touched him somehow too. Both psychiatrists he interviews insinuate that they believe Lotringer is mad, and they accuse each other of being mad too.

Away from the horrors of Nazism, Artaud’s contagion can become comic, just as there is something irresistibly comic about Artaud playing on his own madness in his writings. The exchange with Latrémolière as Lotringer tries to justify the literary quality of Artaud’s writings to him becomes surreal:

SL: […] But his writing expresses intutitions not only about what’s going on in his head, but his head becomes the world.

JL: No, no. Ok, well – listen, I seriously pity you because you really need tranquilizers…


SL: Why do we teach these things in schools if people write only to make money or because they’re a bit … bizarre?

JL: What people? Artaud is hardly taught in schools.

SL: I teach him at Columbia University. And I’m not the only one.

JL: Yes, well I pity your students.

And in another exchange, Artaud’s other doctor, Gaston Ferdière tries to explain to Lotringer how harmless electroshock is:

GF: “[…] Let’s apply a few shocks; why not? We can do it without him even noticing.”

SL: Without him noticing?

GF: I’ve done it a hundred times. I could give you an electroshock this instant and you would never know – if I were in agreement with your family.

SL: Let’s leave my family out of it for the moment. It’s impossible that I wouldn’t notice what you were doing to me.

GF: Oh no, it’s not!

SL: You’re telling me that while speaking here, in the middle of our pleasant conversation, you could administer an electroshock and I wouldn’t notice?

GF: In a pinch, yes.

As both these exchanges attest, and perhaps inevitably, for all Lotringer stresses the importance of Artaud’s relationship to the horrors of the 1930s and 40s in Europe, the conversations with the two doctors that dominate the book tend to fall back on the controversies around the psychiatric treatment that Artaud experienced under their care. In this book, that is reflected both by a consideration of the particular treatment Artaud received, and by wider reflections on the relationships between madness, art and society.

Despite the comedy of the exchange between Lotringer and Ferdière about shock treatment, it seems undoubtable that, in Artaud’s case, it was a deeply disturbing and physically punishing experience. Artaud wrote to Latrémolière that electroshock was like torture, that it ‘reduces me to despair, it takes away my memory, dulls my mind and my heart, it turns me into someone who is absent’, and Latrémolière’s medical notes, reproduced in this book bear that out. ‘Back pains, which became severe when he emerged from the third fit: bilateral, constricting, aggravated by the smallest movement or cough’, they were the result of fractured vertebrae, since this early shock treatment was administered without modern muscle-relaxant medications. Artaud ‘never stopped complaining of that pain [in his back] until the end’, long after the shock treatments had ended.

In France there is a bitter debate over the treatment that Artaud received, played out in scholarly journals, but also in the law courts over the fate of Artaud’s manuscripts and the publication of his writings. Lotringer claims that ‘instead of hastily taking sides I will rather address the phenomenon itself’. In spite of this claim, Lotringer, though he is sceptical of psychiatry in general, seems quite explicitly sympathetic to the shock treatment that was visited on Artaud. He recalls several times that there were no pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness available at the time, a fact that it is easy for us to forget in the era of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. Rather, electroconvulsive therapy was, according to Ferdière, ‘it was the only treatment in the therapeutic arsenal at the time’. With this in mind, ‘it  may be to Dr. Ferdière’s credit that he continued to treat his patients, rather than what is euphemistically referred to as “maintaining” or “observing” them’. Lontringer adds, ‘One can’t hold it against Dr. Ferdière’, who was himself a minor surrealist writer, ‘that he was more experimental as a psychiatrist than he was as a poet, or for testing a method on Artaud that Artaud himself had attempted to practice, with less success, on the stage’.

This is an unsettling but an intriguing point. Artaud’s theatre of cruelty is an attempt to force the audience to creatively confront the horrors of the world through the depiction of horror, to actively recreate the violence of industrial warfare in a broken language of screams and gurgles. Artaud’s theatre takes apart the very language that grounds our subjectivity in order to confront us not only with the horrors of our own existence but to see the horrors of the existence of the world around us. In being cruel to us, it forces us to be creative in our perceptive engagements with wordily horrors. The conclusion of To Have Done with the Judgement of God is exemplary here. A voice asks ‘And what was the purpose of this broadcast Mr. Artaud?’ The answer: ‘To denounce, in this same American people who occupy the whole surface of the former Indian continent, a rebirth of that warlike imperialism of early America that caused the pre-Columbian Indian tribes to be degraded by the aforesaid people’. And yet it is not enough simply to state this. Rather people must be brought into consciousness with a radical treatment to their bodies, ‘By placing him again, for the last time, on the autopsy table to remake his anatomy’, only then will you ‘have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom’. By radically acting on bodies, a new consciousness of the world is created.

This relationship between creativity and extreme bodily experience speaks to the relationship between madness and creativity. Madness is an extreme bodily experience, as anybody who has experienced even a bout of anxiety or depression can attest to, let alone Artaud’s madness, where both illness and treatment acted so severely on his body. Gaston Ferdière, for better or worse, schooled by the surrealists, came from a position that saw madness itself as being inherently creative. He asks Lotringer, of Artaud, ‘Why would you want to cure him? I’m saying don’t cure him, don’t touch him’, because a ‘paraphrenic’, like Artaud, ‘should create’. Ferdière’s justification for using electroshocks then was that Artaud ‘wasn’t doing shit’. Shock treatment, according to Ferdière, acts exactly like the theatre of cruelty, it ‘causes the personality to dissolve so that it can be reconstructed’. It induces epilepsy, which in Ferdière’s worldview is another form of madness, and one that is markedly creative, ‘Epilepsy is the disease from heaven, it’s a sacred disease. It’s terrifying; it’s a horrendous thing to see’, he states, invoking the great epileptic writers, Flaubert and Dostoevsky.

It is due to Ferdière’s belief in the inherent creativity of madness we have the major body of work that Artaud produced in his later years. None other than Jacques Lacan examined Artaud in hospital in April 1938 and declared, ‘this man will never write again’. Nine years later, in Van Gogh, The Man Suicided By Society, Artaud calls a certain Dr. L (whom Lotringer identifies with Lacan), ‘you dirty bastard’. Lacan was proved wrong and Ferdière attributes this directly to shock treatment, ‘It was after the therapy that he started writing again, responding to his friends, requesting books’.

To say whether or not Artaud’s suffering as a psychiatric patient was ‘worth’ the work he has bequeathed us would be a preposterously utilitarian calculation, especially when the fact that his doctors were, by the standards of their time, progressives who, as far as these interviews attest, acted with good intentions. The controversies over Artaud and madness though bring to light another troubling idea.

Throughout Mad Like Artaud, Lotringer draws attention to how Artaud’s writings and life draw us into the orbit of his madness, but the book also attests to how the vast majority of us are ‘sane unlike Artaud’. It is needless to go into the complex semantics of just what madness is to be clear that the vast majority of people reading this book and Artaud’s work will never experience the type of madness that Artaud experienced. On the one hand, Artaud’s work shows us a certain kind of genius with language, a method for seeing the world afresh and for interrogating its ideologies, in politics, psychiatry and elsewhere, but hearing first hand from his doctors also raises the question how, you, as an admirer of Artaud, who professes to challenge psychiatry and the ideology of madness, would behave if you came into contact with him. Artaud did not wash, he spat at pregnant women because he believed they were possessed by the devil, he would ‘behave poorly’ at meals, ‘burping, farting, spitting’. It is telling that when Ferdière says to Lotringer, ‘Listen, you wouldn’t like it either if, in front of your children, a man behaved like that!’, Lotringer does not offer a reply. This is not to say that we should be disgusted by Artaud’s behaviour or that we should be afraid of mad people. Rather, that for all our admiration of Artaud, for all that we may be mad like him, there is a gulf between us, that both challenges whether we, the sane, would continue to our maintain the views we derive from him were we to come into contact with him. The final section of Lotringer’s book imagines meeting Artaud in his dying days. In this interview, the narrator states, ‘I was feeling more and more uncomfortable’. For those of us who are not mad, being touched by Artaud’s madness may make us a little mad, may make us see the world with his blinding clarity, indeed, it might tell us that the world has Artaud’s madness, but we are not subject to Artaud’s hallucinations when we quieten the volume.

Tristan Burke is writing a PhD at the University of Manchester. He is a member of the Everyday Analysis Collective whose book Why Are Animals Funny? is published by Zero.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 27th, 2015.