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18 oct. 2007

Monsieur Artaud, you are raving!

The executioners are still around

By: Andréine & Bernard Bel

Seminar: In Homage to Antonin Artaud
Delhi University & National School of Drama
New Delhi, January 1997.
Part of this text was published in a brochure by the Embassy of France in India (D. Sarfaty-Varma, ed.), p.36.

Antonin Artaud was prompt at rejecting floating abstractions, beliefs, common-sense and the glorified gobbledygook that passes for mental sanity among ordinary citizens. He was a threat to "normal" people, although less as an eccentric or a drug addict (like many visionary artists) than in his way of unsettling the communicative functions of language.

Ah, these states that are never named, these eminent positions of the soul, ah, these intermissions of the mind, ah, these minuscule failures which are the nourishment of my hours, ah, this population teeming with facts -- I always use the same words and really I don't seem to advance very much in my thinking, but actually I am advancing more than you, bearded asses, pertinent pigs, masters of the false word, wrappers of portraits, serial writers, groundlings, cattle raisers, entomologists, plague of my speech.

From 1937 to 1946 Artaud was detained in psychiatric hospitals. He was administered insulin therapy and nearly fifty electric shocks provoking states of coma (and even causing the fracture of a dorsal vertebra). His case adds to a notorious list of achievements of "scientific" mental cure, with Vaslav Nijinsky, Camille Claudel, Vincent van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Wilhelm Reich, Freud's patient Daniel Paul Schreiber, etc. Indeed, none of these cases occurred in a totalitarian state. Yet they did not prompt significant reactions from the intelligentsia their victims belonged to. There was (and still is) a tacit consensus regarding the logical end of a deviant, disturbing and unpredictable behaviour, and psychiatry appeared (appears) the inevitable and dependable solution. In 1939, Jacques Lacan had examined Artaud and told Roger Blin:

He's fixed, he will live up till eighty years of age, he won't write a line any more, he's fixed.

Artaud (1947):

So, society has strangled in its asylums all those it wanted to get rid of or protect itself from, because they refused to become its accomplices in certain great nastiness.

(...) And this is how modern life maintains its old atmosphere of debauchery, anarchy, disorder, delirium, derangement, chronic insanity, bourgeois inertia, psychic anomaly (for it is not man but the world which has become abnormal), deliberate dishonesty and notorious hypocrisy, stingy contempt for everything that shows breeding, (...) in short, of organised crime.

Artaud's argument with his physician in Rodez (who was combining electroconvulsive therapy with "art-therapy") is revealed in the account:

I reminded Dr. Ferdière that I had been in Mexico, and I had climbed up a mountain on horseback during six days to meet a race of indian sorcerers living at the altitude of six thousand meters, that I had found them but had endured numberless spells during 28 days, the impressions of which I had consigned in my little book "A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara." (...)

He answered: No, you were not bewitched by those indians, it is delirium to believe it, and since your delirium still makes you believe it I am going to write to your friend Jean Paulhan that I intend to administer you a new series of electric shocks.

-- I told him, come on, you've read this book, you've put it into your library as one of the best writings ever done in French since long, so you said, and now you are telling me you are going to treat me for having written it...

-- Indeed, he replied, because I am here to straighten out your poetry.

Artaud saw in Vincent van Gogh a faithful replica of his own torment. After the painter's suicide he wrote:

Dr. Gachet would not tell van Gogh that he was there to straighten out his painting (...) but he used to send him to paint from nature, and bury himself in a landscape to escape the pain of thinking.

Except that, as soon as van Gogh had turned his back, Dr. Gachet turned off the switch of his mind.

(...) I myself spent nine years in an insane asylum and I never had the obsession of suicide, but I know that each conversation with a psychiatrist, every morning at the time of his visit, made me want to hang myself, realising that I would not be able to cut his throat.

In Artaud's view, van Gogh had been "suicided by society" (the "executioners"):

Besides, one does not commit suicide by oneself.

No one has ever been born by oneself.

No one dies by oneself either.

This may be related to the (late) awakening of psychiatrists acknowledging an ineluctable relationship between presumed psychic disorders and social rejection or submission. In 1986, Prof. Edouard Zarifian stated:

Delirium requires at least two persons, as it arises from the other's judgement, and that judgement is based on the socio-cultural norm. At first there is no fundamental difference between the normal and the pathological. Now that I have been around a long time in the practice, I no longer think that one is allowed to say there are mad and normal people: there exist states, that is all.

Nonetheless it is hard to take the popular belief for granted that mental cure has evolved "radically" during the past decades, for the same renovation myth has been proclaimed since the early days of psychiatry. During our animation work in one of the most "advanced" mental cure hospitals in France, in 1992, patients told us the humiliations and punishments they were still enduring.

Neither Heaven nor Hell, if they exist, can do anything against this brutality which they have imposed on me, perhaps so that I may serve them... Who knows?

In any case, in order to lacerate me.

When exorcism had lost credibility, alienated people were thrown to jail, or chained and beaten up in mental asylums. Straitjackets, lobotomy and electric shock treatment were in vogue in Artaud's time (and are occasionally used nowadays). Devices change, but the "executioners" are still around using the ones modern society deems acceptable. Today, the clean and invisible "chemical camisole" of suppressants takes care of preserving cultural and social norms.

When I believed that I was denying this world, I know now that I was denying the Void.

For I know that this world does not exist and I know how it does not exist.

What I have suffered from until now is having denied the Void.

The Void which was already within me.

text available at: http://aune.lpl.univ-aix.fr/~belbernard/perfarts/artaurav.htm
image available at: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~gorelick/artaud.jpg

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